DVD/Blu-ray 4/24/12: Pariah, The Innkeepers, Some Days Are Better Than Others, Secret War: The Secret Agents who set Europe Ablaze, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (miniseries), Cinema Verite, Contraband

Pariah (R, 2011, Universal)
One day in the future, a story like Alike’s (Adepero Oduye) will be just another story about a smart high school girl with awkward adventures in dating, a pest of a little sister, and friends who aren’t well-liked by the parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) who fight seemingly every night. “Pariah” isn’t allowed to simply be that just yet because Alike is both black and gay, which remains an almost mythical combination in Hollywood, to say nothing of Alike’s neighborhood and conservative household. But the beautiful thing about “Pariah” — even if its name teases otherwise — is that if you’re ready to live in that future right now, it’s equipped to take you there. There are no boisterous declarations of the obvious, nor are there sweeping sermons launched at us under the hollow pretense of being directed at Alike’s supporting characters. “Pariah” treats Alike as the living, breathing jewel of its story instead of a means to an ideological end. That allows her to just be a girl with problems, and it lets her story shine as an intelligent, upbeat and wonderfully grounded story about problems we all can understand on some level. What a crazy concept that is.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.

The Innkeepers (R, 2011, Dark Sky Films)
By their own graveyard-shift admissions, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) didn’t exactly aspire to work the front desk at The Yankee Pedlar Inn. Fortunately, with the inn set to permanently close down in a few days, they’re both free to resume pursuing their as-yet-unknown callings. First, though, there’s the matter of making one final push to see if the Pedlar really is haunted by spirits as they both suspect it is. With no other employers left to dissuade them and with a whole three guests left roaming the halls, this is as good a chance as any. Naturally, because this is the movies, their suspicions have some validity to them. And if you’re worried that “The Innkeepers” follows the same ghost story outline as numerous others already have, there is some validity to your suspicions as well. But before that validation rides in, “The Innkeepers” does something smart: It sets a tone that’s both playful and darkly funny, and it establishes Claire and Luke as supremely likable goofballs instead of disposable pawns for the poltergeist gods. That vibe endures even when things take a turn for the dark and mysterious, and while a whole lot of “The Innkeepers'” third act feels like a nod to its influences, Claire and Luke have taken so much ownership of the story that it still archives a tense edge against all odds. All that personality doesn’t make isn’t a genre game-changer, but it goes a surprisingly long way.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, director/Paxton/Healy commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Some Days Are Better Than Others (NR, 2010, Palisades Tartan)
There’s plenty of heartbreak to go around in “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” whose title most definitely alludes to days other than these. Some of it is reserved quite acutely for Katrina (Carrie Brownstein), whose curious quest to be on reality TV goes off the rails when a bout of e-mail snooping reveals that the love of her life no longer loves her back. Eli (James Mercer), meanwhile, is coping with the duller, more chronic ache of being in love with his lesbian roommate (Erin McGarry) and completely losing his way en route to finding his calling. Finally, there’s Camille (Renee Roman Nose), whose reaction to finding a discarded urn full of ashes in her goodwill store’s donation pile makes her the wild card. “Days” keeps these three stories mostly separate, and the regularity with which it cycles between them gives it that not-always-welcome air of segregation that makes it feel like three small movies instead of one larger story. But there’s a means to “Days'” methods, and as the stories gradually mesh together, they form a surprisingly poignant parable about heartbreak, how to deal with it and why it might even be good for you. Contrary to the theme, “Days” is stealthily upbeat — perhaps a sign that those better days to which the title alludes lie ahead instead of behind.
Extras: Short film “Light Tiger Eye,” deleted scenes.

Secret War: The Secret Agents who set Europe Ablaze (NR, 2011, Athena)
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the folly in waiting for Adolf Hitler to come to him as Hitler’s army steamrolled through mainland Europe during World War II’s early going. So a year into the war, Churchill’s cabinet deployed the Special Operations Executive, a covert but sprawling resistance movement whose directive — “set Europe ablaze,” as Churchill himself phrased it — is considerably more grassroots in spirit than images of World War II typically conjure. If the operation’s formation, methods, degree of success, legacy and surrounding controversy are of interest to you, some good news: “Secret War,” at 13 episodes and 656 minutes long, almost certainly has answers to questions you had and answers to other questions you didn’t even know to ask. “War” is nothing if not voluminous, with episodes centered around everything from German-speaking Jewish interrogators and New York City mobsters to the phony spy who tricked Hitler and the traitorous French agent who played for as many as three sides. Opportunities for nitpicking abound, particularly with a presentation that occasionally veers erratically between overly dry and needlessly overdramatic, but minor stylistic grievances are a small price to pay for such a metric ton of fascinating stories you may not even know took place. Considering how exhaustively World War II has been documented, that’s the only selling point it needs.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus a 20-page viewer’s guide.

Return (NR, 2011, Focus World)
Well-meaning though it doubtlessly is, the story of the Iraq War soldier returning home and struggling to rediscover normalcy has practically become a genre unto itself over the last few years. One glance at “Return’s” premise — wherein Kelli (Linda Cardellini) returns from Iraq to her husband (Michael Shannon) and two girls, only to discover that resuming old routines is considerably easier said than done — is enough to dismiss it as another good-intentioned also-ran. But a funny thing happens en route to “Return’s” inevitable compilation of breakdowns, tantrums and tear jerks: It doesn’t oblige. To the contrary — and with a brief but invaluable assist from a fellow soldier (John Slattery) who immediately understands Kelli better than every well-meaning well-wisher put together — “Return” very literally rails against the kid gloves with which a lot of media treat this story. That isn’t the same thing as trivializing the story, mind you. Rather, it merely provides Kelli an opportunity to be a character of her own voice instead of an archetype shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of others. She takes advantage of the opportunity, and “Return” emerges as a much fuller picture of this issue as result.
Extras: Director/cinematographer commentary, deleted scenes.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (NR, 1979, Acorn Media Group)
That the movie adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” managed to journey through John le Carré’s novel with a runtime just short of two hours is impressive. That it did considerable justice to the mess plaguing the British Secret Intelligence Service — a Russian mole embedded in its upper echelon, a delicate operation in Hungary going consequently and violently haywire during the height of the Cold War — is almost miraculous. But providing that justice entailed a dexterous storyline that bandied between multiple timelines and numerous characters freely and frequently, and if you took your eyes off the road for even a scene, getting derailed was easy. Naturally, that’s a problem this six-part, 290-minute miniseries doesn’t have in nearly the same supply. The 1979 treatment of “Spy” remains unapologetically dense, and like the movie, it moves freely between timelines running before, during and after the operation in Hungary. But the miniseries also has room to breathe, and it takes advantage without being wasteful. George Smiley (Alec Guinness), the blackballed retired spy who has been reactivated and tasked with smoking out the mole, uses the extra time to let his true personality blossom. That, in turn, shines a brighter light on the reverence that still burns between George, his cohorts and their suspects — a nod to the good work done previously and the ideals that originally brought them together. The crisis itself naturally gets extra attention —episodes that comprised a scene or two in the movie get literal episodes in this format — but it’s that extra attention to stakes that remains this miniseries’ best asset.
Extras: Deleted scenes, le Carré interview, director interview, production notes, character/term glossary, le Carré bio and booklist.

Cinema Verite (NR, 2011, HBO)
No, MTV did not invent the sensation of reality television with “The Real World.” That honor goes to PBS and Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), who put Pat Loud (Diane Lane), her husband Bill (Tim Robbins) and their children in front of the camera for all of America to gawk at in 1973’s “An American Family.” Though dismissed by Gilbert himself as fallacious, “Cinema Verite” nonetheless posits itself as a dramatization of the real story behind the show. And whether it’s telling the truth or not, it hits all those checkboxes a respectable period piece needs to hit with a strong cast, a brisk but attentive script and some careful attention paid to the good music and bad wardrobes of the era. But merits beyond that elude “Verite,” because even if it is 100 percent accurate, it’s still playing in the wrong ballpark. The behind-the-scenes story of television’s first reality show — to say nothing of the backlash its immense popularity inspired — must be a gold mine not only for its human drama, but also the ingenuity and processes that went into the formation of a polarizing new genre of entertainment. “Verite” has some of that, particularly during a closing sequence of scenes that shows us the real Louds and touches on the show’s post-air aftermath. Mostly, though, it’s the story you expect about a crumbling family dynamic and the personal odyssey of a producer whose own family life (presumably) collapsed before he conceived “Family.” “Verite’s” treatment of these stories is considerably competent, but it’s also pretty ordinary, and when you’re talking about the origins of a phenomenon that’s more influential than ever, competence isn’t enough.
Extras: Directors/Lane commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

Contraband (R, 2012, Universal)
Even the most exciting Super Bowl is considerably less so if you don’t have a horse in the race. If the game’s a dud and you don’t care who wins, you might be hard-pressed to even finish it. By those metrics, watching “Contraband” is akin to being a Vikings fan and watching the Cowboys beat the Bills for the second straight year in Super Bowl XXVIII. As a spectacle, it has its moments, thanks to a couple good chases and a game of hide and seek on the docks. A few tense moments also play well as Chris (Mark Wahlberg), a celebrated but rehabilitated smuggler, returns to his old ways in a frantic bid to protect his family from scoundrels who force his hand. But even “Contraband’s” most spectacularly gripping moments play like a hodgepodge of scenes you might swear you’ve seen at least a few times in a few other thrillers. All these borrowed parts might suffice if the sum of them offered some kind of serious rooting interest, but it doesn’t. Chris pulls double duty as a dull hero and a scumbag who probably deserves the trouble he attracts, his allies (Lukas Haas, Ben Foster, Caleb Landry Jones) come unhinged entirely too easily considering their line of work, and his primary adversaries (Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna) are cartoon characters who’d play better as as villains of the week on some sorry CBS police procedural. Without much reason to care, seeing stuff you’ve seen before is, needless to say, not the most exciting use of 109 minutes.
Extras: Director/producers commentary, deleted scenes, picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes features (Blu-ray only), two behind-the-scenes features.

Games 4/24/12: Trials Evolution, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings EE (360), Devil May Cry HD Collection, StarDrone Extreme

Trials Evolution
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: RedLynx/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

Purely in terms of how certain returning features relate to their counterparts in 2009’s “Trials HD,” the modestly-titled “Trials Evolution” is very aptly named.

As a description for the total package, though, it’s comically understated.

Superficially, “Evolution” indeed looks like the evolution of the same formula that made “Excitebike” so cherished on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s a motorbike game. It’s set on a plane that’s not quite 2D but not quite 3D either. The controls — one trigger for gas, another for brakes, and the left stick to shift the weight and angle of the bike — are as elementary as ever.

But “Evolution” (like “HD” before it) is a whole different animal with regard to its obsessive attention to the physics of speed, weight and angles. Even the most minor applications of gas, brakes and tilt can spell the difference between a brilliant run and a disastrous one. You’ll receive a track’s bronze medal simply for finishing it, but if you want the gold (zero crashes, a reasonably fast completion time), you’ll have to continually manage all three facets to maneuver through some wildly creative obstacle courses. (“Evolution’s” track designs are, predictably, a cut above “HD’s” in terms of scope and imagination.)

If you played “HD,” you already know these basics, and you likely also remember how quickly that game’s difficulty spiked from zero to infinity.

This isn’t a problem “Evolution” has. Getting golds on easy- and medium-difficulty tracks remains challenging, but the insane bike gymnastics required to even finish many of “HD’s” medium-difficulty tracks are reserved solely for the highest echelon of “Evolution’s” difficulty tier.

Even if you were good enough to handle “HD’s” tracks and didn’t need a more gradual difficulty climb, this likely is a positive development. “Evolution’s” Xbox Live integration makes competing with friends’ times even more fun than chasing those medals, and you need your friends to finish those tracks before they can offer up a high score to conquer.

Besides, “Evolution” won’t run out of nasty challenges until its large community runs out of players.

For starters, you can race other players this time around. “Evolution’s” multiplayer mode (four players, online or offline) is a glorified ghost race insofar that you can’t collide with the other three riders on the track, and it’s a literal ghost race on certain elaborate tracks that have terrain-altering switches each rider must be able to activate separately to keep things fair. But it’s still a race to the finish line against three other riders you at least can partially see, and that’s all it needs to achieve the intense air of a multiplayer battle where one mistake can make or break your finish position.

“Evolution’s” multiplayer is presented in a circuit-style format — a collection of races, with the best combined performance taking top honors — and includes a persistent upgrade track that’s good for unlocking new gear for your rider.

But “Evolution’s” real showpiece is the upgraded track editor, which no longer is merely a track editor. As it was in “HD,” the editor is accessible enough to grasp despite being so powerful that RedLynx itself used it to build tracks. The sharing interface is night-and-day improved, with numerous means of filtering creations based on popularity and difficulty, and every track has a global leaderboard to attack.

But in addition to offering a fresh handful of weird single-player minigames in which you launch yourself like a javelin or replace the bike with skis, “Evolution” blows the editor’s doors off and lets you design minigames of your own. User-created events already exist where you can shoot hoops, go bowling and fire a steerable cannonball, and RedLynx itself built a first-person shooter. There’s no telling what will materialize once players truly get acclimated with the tools, but it’s a safe bet that “Evolution” won’t run out of new content to discover anytime soon.


The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: CD Projekt/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)
Price: $60

If it’s possible for anything to emerge triumphant from the fallout over “Mass Effect 3’s” roundly disappointing (and, according to no less than the Better Business Bureau, misleading) ending, you’re looking right at it. Save for Bethesda’s games, no game anywhere gives you the power to carve your destiny as measurably as does “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.” And even Bethesda’s endgames don’t pay off on the choices you make as satisfyingly as this one does.

That’s a credit to “Kings” taking the concept of role-playing to a certain limit but not past it. Though dauntingly thick with side quests and opportunities to explore freely, “Kings” still subtly guides players through a narrative that’s more Bioware (cutscenes, dialogue trees, significant story decisions that fork the road) than Bethesda. You’re playing as Geralt, the titular Witcher, and while his destiny rests in your hands, his personality and physical makeup come pre-designed (and for good reason).

Within that structure, though, things can get wonderfully messy.

“Kings” usually tips its hand when you’re at a crossroads that can shift the makeup of the story and the world at large. But the charismatically blurry lines that comprise the personalities of Geralt and his supporting cast — imagine “Game of Thrones'” irreverent take on fantasy instead of your typical straight-faced and straight-laced role-playing game — allow those crossroads to cloud the discrepancy between doing the right thing and doing the desirable thing. Consequently, it isn’t a question of if some seemingly innocuous decision you make early leaves a surprising mark later, but when and how often it happens. From “Kings'” structure to its personality to the respect it pays to player intelligence and maturity, this is the new standard-bearer.

Though not easily mastered (which may be great or distressing news depending on your stance on hand-holding), the act of actually playing the game is similarly enjoyable.

“Kings'” third-person combat finds a happy Western RPG medium. It isn’t as fast and smooth as “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s” action game-style combat, but it’s in the same ballpark, and it trades in some of that finesse for an extra level of depth and danger.

Specifically, success in combat entails vigorous management of your inventory as well as your adversaries. Where “Amalur” lets you hack away with abandon, “Kings” quickly delivers smart and powerful enemies who will punish you if you don’t play defense and bring a game plan into battle. Geralt’s arsenal includes traps and fortifications as well as swords and daggers, and establishing them as a first line of defense is — along with executing optimally-timed dodges, blocks and counters — incredibly valuable. If you want to have a healing potion handy in battle, you’ll need to mix it yourself ahead of time, and if you want your blades at their sharpest, you’d best oil them up before walking into a fight. “Kings” provides a seemingly bottomless sea of weapons, clothing, special ingredients and combat strategies, but it’s entirely your job to put the pieces together and survive once the world opens up.

Happily, the most notable additions to this enhanced edition — which arrives 11 months after “Kings” originally appeared on the PC — work in the service of user-friendliness. Along with a brief but invaluable in-game tutorial that lays out the combat basics, “Kings” ships with a 90-page handbook that exhaustively walks through every facet of the game. The handbook is loaded with spoilers and should be regarded as a last resort if the bevy of quests and menus are threatening to chase you way entirely, but it more than addresses the grievances players had about the PC version being completely user-unfriendly.


Devil May Cry HD Collection
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

On the precipice of a full-scale “Devil May Cry” reboot, Capcom has given in to another popular trend by rereleasing the series’ three Playstation 2 entrants in high definition.

Or rather, it kind of does that, if you don’t count the parts of “Devil May Cry” and “Devil May Cry 2” that remain in slightly blurry fullscreen. The standard-definition content is relegated to menus and cutscenes, and all gameplay in all three games is presented in widescreen with aged but HD-friendly graphics. But the strange first impression this oversight gives is a unintentional sign of things to come if you fully plunder “Devil May Cry HD Collection’s” depths.

Regardless of your memories of it, the original “DMC” — which, in 2001, broke ground and established a blueprint for contemporary action games like “God of War” and “Ninja Gaiden” — has aged considerably.

Conceived initially as a “Resident Evil” game, “DMC” doesn’t quite shake the suffocating fixed cameras and clumsy cause-and-effect puzzles that had already begun wearing out their welcome 11 years ago. Replacing “Evil’s” flaccid combat with a fluid arsenal of melee and ranged attacks was enough to turn heads and reorient the confused trajectory 3D action games were riding back then, but by today’s standards — and even compared to “Devil May Cry 3,” which is this collection’s jewel — Dante’s original repertoire is limited and stunted in its dexterity.

“DMC2,” released in 2003, was panned even then, and it holds steady as this collection’s undisputed dud. Signs of things to come are everywhere: Dante’s skillset is larger and more dynamic, the game’s areas are larger, and the fixed camera is slightly less ridiculous in terms of triggering claustrophobic reactions. But the original game’s personality has vanished, and the larger areas and arsenal are wasted on some demoralizingly drab level designs and enemy arrangements. “DMC” wasn’t necessarily masterful in either regard, but “DMC2” isn’t even trying.

That leaves the third game, and if there’s a reason to revisit this collection at all, 2005’s “DMC3” most assuredly is it.

It’s here where Capcom catches and passes the games for which it initially paved the way: Dante’s combat is fluid in a way that remains fresh even seven years later, his personality returns in force, the level and enemy designs justify the full prioritization of combat over puzzle solving, and even the fixed cameras feel somewhat (though not completely) dynamic.

Beyond the dated graphics, “DMC3” is the one game here that can hang in 2012 without leaning on nostalgic crutches to do so. It also remains better realized than HD-native “Devil May Cry 4,” which looks considerably prettier but regresses in all other respects. The most pronounced ding against “DMC3” was its completely ruthless difficulty, but a special edition — which is the version that’s included here — addressed that with a softer additional difficulty setting. (Masochists, fear not: The original difficulty remains intact as well.)

As a total package, “Collection” is pretty no-frills. The three games are walled off within the disc to the point where if you start one, you have to reboot the entire collection to get back to the collection’s menu screen. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of the game naturally come with achievements and trophies to respectively unlock, but there’s little else in the way of bonus content beyond some art galleries. Surprisingly, “Collection” doesn’t even include a trailer of the rebooted “DmC: Devil May Cry,” which releases later this year and (so far) looks primed to justify Capcom’s tap of the reset button.


StarDrone Extreme
For: Playstation Vita (via Playstation Network)
From: Beatshapers/Orb Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $4

To really understand “StarDrone Extreme” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, because while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a touch of pinball, a touch of “Breakout” and a touch of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), putting into words how it all comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the fundamental goal in “Extreme” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 60 levels and clears the area of collectible pieces (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. The catch is that you don’t control the ship directly, but instead use objects in the level to sling and bounce it around indirectly. Those levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some dangerous, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, it may be too unwieldy to even enjoy. But for those who love obsessively replaying levels in hopes of shaving a second off their time and achieving leaderboard supremacy, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “Extreme’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Save for a few Vita-specific levels, most of “Extreme” is ported from last year’s PS3 version of “StarDrone.” The good news there is that the PS3 and Vita share a cross-compatible leaderboard. The bad news? “Extreme” inexplicably excludes “StarDrone’s” button controls in favor of touch-only options. They work great — arguably better than the buttons, even — but why deny players a choice they previously had?

DVD/Blu-ray 4/17/11: Frozen Planet, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Treme S2, Shame, Bob's Burgers S1, The Last Rites of Joe May, The Divide

Frozen Planet (NR, 2012, BBC Earth)
If you’re a casual observer of the nature special racket, you wouldn’t be foolish to wonder if maybe — between “Planet Earth,” “Life” and so many other gems — all the sweeping specials that could exist already do. But as was and will again be the case with countless other series that have been and will someday be made, a close look at “Frozen Planet” perishes the thought — and not simply because it’s set in one of the few places on Earth that still feels somewhat uncharted. Have you ever witnessed a hapless, two-terrain battle for survival between a penguin and a sea lion? Or watched a pack of frolicking wolf cubs who would look right at home in the Puppy Bowl were they not battling over the remains of a hare? Have you met the Woolly Bear caterpillar, who spends 14 winters frozen solid before living out his furious final days as a moth? “Planet” sets its stories within the larger context of the Arctic, and its contemporary exploration of the region and the fresh dangers it faces give it all the educational edge it needs. But even without that context’s assistance, “Planet” staggers the eyes with an incredible collection of stories about animals, birds and marine life living magnificently in their element. That well is nowhere near dry, and the six hours we get here fly by in the blink of an eye. David Attenborough (who else?) narrates.
Contents: Seven episodes ( each with a behind-the-scenes “Freeze Frame” feature following the episode), plus a standalone behind-the-scenes feature, 47 video diaries, a greatest moments compilation and an option to view the episodes with the music track only.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
Though it’s full of pleasant surprises, “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” delivers the biggest one almost straight away: It’s funny. In fact, the prison break that springs Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) back into action after a five-year hiatus is as cleverly amusing as action movie hero comebacks get without completely breaking character. Lest we get carried away, “Protocol” is not a comedy. But after “Mission: Impossible III” turned Hunt’s brain into a time bomb and left his wife seemingly for dead, a little levity — even with nuclear launch codes dangerously in play and the Kremlin’s collapse creating a beastly international incident — goes a long way. Whether the time off helped or not, “Protocol” gives off an air of invigoration as it maintains the series’ perfect entertainment record. The big set piece stunts — including Cruise’s much- (and deservedly) discussed glass building scaling — are awesomely, unapologetically over the top, but for every one of those, there’s a close-quarters fight that’s equally entertaining on its own terms. Twists run rampant without devolving into incomprehension, villains skate the edge between cartoonish and cunning, and Hunt’s ragtag crew (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner) makes the good guys more fun to root for than in any previous entrant in this series.
Extras: Alternate opening, deleted scenes, 14 behind-the-scenes features.

Treme: The Complete Second Season (NR, 2011, HBO)
It set itself two months after Katrina, but the first season of “Treme” squared so intimately on its characters that they became the story while the hurricane and its ugly aftermath merely formed the backdrop for their collective comeback. But things aren’t quite so pure with another 12 months in the rear view, and the criminal, political and self-promotional aspects of that badly stalling comeback have settled in to take their toll. “Treme’s” first season took a cue from David Simon’s previous show, “The Wire,” with its miraculous ability to take sweeping, incendiary themes and turn them into deeply personal stories that hit uplifting and even funny notes without betraying their honesty. Season two does that all over again (with another helping of television’s best running soundtrack on board to do its part), but it takes another “Wire” cue by stepping back and panning across a big-picture story that suddenly and unwillingly is stuck in neutral. The new tricks pretty deliberately clash with the old tricks, and while season one wasn’t exactly sunshine and roses, the mood is darker with so many vultures closing in from above. Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Melissa Leo, Clarke Peters, Steve Zahn, Rob Brown and Kim Dickens, among several others, comprise an outstanding ensemble cast.
Contents: 11 episodes, plus commentary, select music performance commentaries and four behind-the-scenes features.

Shame (NC-17, 2011, Fox)
There’s no way to describe Brandon (Michael Fassbender), “Shame’s” primary person of interest, without resorting to some measure of cliche. You can blame Brandon himself for that, because he is, in fact, a walking cliche — a well-dressed, successful Manhattanite who can drag a woman into bed almost reflexively but cannot remotely connect with another person if his whole vapid life depended on it. Were this a romantic comedy or a lukewarm drama, this is the part where Brandon would meet a beguiling woman who shoots him down until he magically changes his ways. And Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invites herself to move into his apartment after she runs out of places to go? She’d be the wise-cracking sibling who eventually puts him in his place with a killer third-act monologue. But “Shame” isn’t conventional, and Brandon is such a raging disaster of unsorted, indiscriminate disgust that his story barely qualifies as a story. The crazily unstable energy with which “Shame” rambles forward (and backward, sideways and in circles) is bound to polarize. Is the scene wherein Sissy slowly croons Sinatra a striking example of storytelling without telling, or is it simply an insufferably pretentious waste of five long minutes? Are the scenes that elevated “Shame” to a very questionable NC-17 rating necessary (sidebar: how does torture porn routinely get an R while this somehow goes too far?), or could the same story come through without doting on imagery? Probably not, but “Shame’s” vivid picture of Brandon’s smoldering psyche certainly leaves itself open to debate. Whether you love how bold it is or despise the airs it puts on, you’ll be hard-pressed to call it ordinary. No extras.

Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Fox)
There’s a modest but heartfelt pocket of people who love “Home Movies,” “Archer” and other dryly funny cartoons that don’t quite play by network television’s broad rules of comedy. “Bob’s Burgers” somehow finagled its way onto network TV, but if you’re a proud member of that pocket, your affinity for it will subconsciously activate before the first episode’s first minute has ticked by. “Burgers” very obviously comes courtesy of some of the brain trust responsible for “Movies” and “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” and if the illustration and writing style don’t completely give that away, H. Jon “Coach McGuirk/Sterling Archer/Ben Katz” Benjamin providing the voice for Bob should end all doubt. Some concessions are made to accommodate “Burgers'” place in Fox’s Sunday night lineup: Bob, like Homer Simpson and Seth MacFarlane’s trio of family dads, is a bumbling husband and father of three strange kids (all of whom live in an apartment atop his struggling burger joint), and some episodes force the writing’s hand with wacky premises that play for easier laughs. But even when it stoops and panders, “Burgers'” maintains that dry quality that sets it apart from the norm. And when it does what it does best and engages in a sandpapery stream of dialogue that may not necessarily have anything to do with the wackiness encircling it, it embodies everything some of us love about a very unlikely sub-genre that keeps on thriving.
Contents: 13 episodes (commentary on all), plus the original pitch demo (with intro), audio improv outtakes, a short piece about the “burger of the day” gag and a music video.

The Last Rites of Joe May (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
Pneumonia — and the long hospital stay it entailed — was bad enough. But recovery and release may be even worse for Joe May (Dennis Farina), who returns to his neighborhood to discover his home occupied and pretty much everybody he knew having moved on from him as if he’d died. Perhaps that’s righteous penance for a guy who spent a lifetime hustling and scheming toward his present desolate existence, but still, that’s kinda rough, no? Besides, Joe at least means well. That goes as well for “The Last Rites of Joe May,” which can’t really claim points for conceptual ingenuity. Joe is a prototypical has-been hustler, and if you’re familiar with the particular qualities Farina imbues into his characters, you’ve got this character figured out before his story even starts. But part of “May’s” charm comes from the fact that everyone else — Joe reluctantly included — has him figured out as well. The story isn’t about the story so much as it is about Joe (and, specifically, what the world looks like through the eyes of a someone whose lack of direction is no longer exciting or liberating), and the aforementioned predictability allows “May” to leave a lot of things emphatically understood even when left unsaid. Jamie Anne Allman also stars.
Extras: Director interview, outtakes.

The Divide (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
Roughly halfway through “The Divide,” it hits you: The movie’s very first scene — wherein Eva (Lauren German) watches nuclear warheads crush Manhattan from her apartment building’s window before getting pulled into the basement by a throng of neighbors running for cover — is by far its best. Then, following the second half, another revelation: That mostly weak first half was by far the better of the two. “The Divide” is, ostensibly, a story about surviving a disaster that catches everyone unaware and forces people to trust each other with what they have, lack, know and don’t know. Briefly, that seems like enough, especially when an outside force teases an intriguing turn of events. But this tease is the first of several that never really materialize during a first half in which our confused group of survivors turns into unlikable pack of scoundrels and idiots. It only gets worse the longer “The Divide” carries on, and the second half finds our group of scoundrels degenerating further into inhuman lunatics who derive enjoyment from gleefully and brutally abusing one another. If you’re intrigued by “The Divide’s” pretense about being a story of survival, here’s your warning: It is no such thing, but rather just another cheap excuse for aimless torture of one by another. That it tries to regain that first-scene promise during its closing moments is a pitiful stab at what might have been.
Extra: Cast/director commentary.

Games 4/17/11: Fez, Supremacy MMA Unrestricted, Anomaly Warzone Earth

For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Polytron Corporation/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Following a quick introductory level and an amusing sequence that will mess with the heads of anyone who has watched an Xbox 360 (or two, or three) fail on them, “Fez” reveals the little trick that has made its release so hotly anticipated for some four years now.

The best part? It arguably — very arguably, admittedly — isn’t even the best trick in “Fez’s” bag.

During that opening level, “Fez” pretty customarily makes the kind of first impression you might expect from a modern-day 2D platformer. As the obscenely cheerful Gomez, you can run, jump and climb up certain walls and ledges, and the goal — reach the exit door at the topmost point of a mostly vertical level — is so obvious that the game seems reluctant to even point it out. Because there are no enemies, time limits or consequences for failure — making a fatal jump into a perilous spot simply places you back at your jump-off point — the reluctance is understandable, because success is inevitable.

But past that point, it’s a different story. “Fez’s” jubilantly silly story (sort of) explains the details, but the nutshell explanation is that your flat, 2D world is now a rare combination of still flat but in three dimensions.

Essentially, like sides of a cube, a level in “Fez” consists of four flat planes instead of one. Press the right or left triggers and the entire level unflattens into a cube, rotates on its axis and flattens again.

The only exception is Gomez, who remains exactly where he was. Platforms, walls, and other objects that were perpendicular to your point of view are now parallel (or, if you rotated twice, turned inside out and reversed), and with the level flattened, objects and areas that sat far apart at one angle might be right next to each other at this angle. Hop over to that now-nearby platform, rotate the level back, and suddenly you’re on the other side of the level.

“Fez’s” goals — find enchanted cube pieces (among other items) and keep on unlocking and opening those exit doors — remain dead simple. But when a cube piece sits impossibly out of reach and you have to find the right sequence of rotations to get over there or trigger the sequence of events that brings it within reach, the achievement of those goals is no longer so inevitable.

The (arguable) most beautiful thing about this arrangement is that “Fez” remains reluctant to explain itself. Gomez’s friends are on hand to marvel in disbelief as you rotate their entire world at will, but very little of the game’s dialogue serves to explain anything beyond the absolute basics.

The deal “Fez” brokers is simple. There are no enemies, time limits, scoring systems or failure penalties, and you’re free to jump back and forth between levels and solve riddles in whatever manner you discover them. In return, “Fez” tells you next to nothing about its riddles and how to even find, never mind solve, many of them. The map, though not entirely useless, seems deliberately convoluted. If you’re missing a few items from an area you last visited hours earlier, finding your way back there can be as tricky as solving some of its riddles.

But getting back there isn’t a chore when it entails uncovering numerous surprise discoveries along the way. “Fez” is that impossibly rare game that’s deviously challenging and absurdly relaxing at the same time, and the carte blanche it provides to truly and freely explore a world that’s as mysterious as it is unabashedly cheerful is a wonderful case of the journey, rather than its completion, being a game’s reward. The lack of stricter structure and harsher peril is bound to turn some off, but for those who derive as much joy from discovering as they do conquering, this is not to be missed.


Supremacy MMA Unrestricted
For: Playstation Vita
From: Kung Fu Factory/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $40

“Supremacy MMA Unrestricted” is, without a doubt, the best mixed martial arts game in the Playstation Vita’s library.

Unfortunately, that’s partly because it’s also the only one. And while some MMA action is better than nothing, there’s enough working against “Unrestricted” to temper the enthusiasm serious fans may have for the sport’s Vita debut.

Most glaring is the uphill battle against UFC’s and EA Sports’ games for fighter name recognition — a problem “Unrestricted” arguably eschews by opting for a mostly fictional roster of fighters based on real-life fighters whom casual fans likely wouldn’t recognize anyway.

The fictional roster allows “Unrestricted” to take liberty and give most fighters a unique storyline to complete. The stories are short and won’t win awards for creativity. But it’s an angle the other games can’t take, especially with a level of grit that doesn’t always flatter the fighters. The cutscenes, distilled through voice-acted motion comics, look and sound good, too.

“Unrestricted” also breaks convention by including woman fighters, and here it does opt for real-life fighters. Problem is, only two — Felice Herrig and Michele Gutierrez — are included, and they can only fight each other. Unsurprisingly, their storylines wrap after 10 minutes because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

The actual act of fighting is a similar case of enticing and off-putting, though it doubtlessly will lean toward the latter for MMA purists.

Like its peers, “Unrestricted” accommodates multiple fight disciplines (wrestling, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu and so on) and provides the necessary means for ground, standing, striking and submission combat. Different fighters succeed differently based on their disciplines: Focusing on strikes if you’re a submission specialist will, for instance, probably end poorly.

Unlike its peers, “Unrestricted” distills its action through what essentially resembles a non-MMA fighting game. You get a lifebar, and the only way to win a fight is to drain your opponent’s lifebar. An opportunistic counterattack will hurt more than a plain strike, but there’s no way to thread the timing needle and land one perfect punch that turns a losing contest into a knockout victory. Similarly, the only way to make an opponent tap out is to perform a submission when his lifebar is already near zero. “Unrestricted” rewards players for focusing on specific body parts by giving attacks on weakened areas a damage premium, but the facets of a tense MMA fight — both on the technical side and the thrilling, this-can-turn-in-an-instant side — are dampened when the lifebar rules all.

“Unrestricted” also mimics fighting games by taking place almost exclusively on a 2D plane. You can move more freely to change stances during a ground attack, but when both fighters are upright, they’re always facing each other without any means to circle around and use the octagon.

These aren’t minor shortcomings if you want a true-blue MMA experience and not a fighting game with MMA trimmings.

But if you can settle for the latter, “Unrestricted” at least does that pretty well. Its handling of multiple disciplines certainly suffices, and each fighter has a nice complement of moves they perform merely adequately as well as expertly. You can mix button and touch controls freely — escaping submissions is ideal with touch, while basic attacks work best with buttons — and pretty much every move has a weak spot that can be countered and reversed if you time it correctly.

“Unrestricted” also performs sufficiently in the features department. Along with storylines for 14 fighters, the 16 male fighters each have separate upgrade paths that unlock customization bonuses. A training mode and two tournament styles round out the single-player options. A no-frills multiplayer option (two players, local/online) is available as well, but attempts to find an online match (and sometimes even connect to the server) proved unsuccessful.


Anomaly Warzone Earth
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android, Windows PC, Mac
From: 11 bit studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, language)
Price: $10

Tower defense games have grown so prevalent that even the ones that mix in other genres and rewrite the rules of engagement are cropping up at a dangerous rate. “Anomaly Warzone Earth” dials it back with a presentation and control scheme that’s pure fundamental tower defense, but it flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting through an alien defense. The general rules of tower defense apply, but rather than lay out towers and turrets, you’re assembling a convoy lineup and drawing a path for it to follow through and around the streets of Baghdad’s and Tokyo’s urban battlegrounds. Vehicle upgrades and repairs replace tower upgrades, a handful of power-ups let you devise temporary defenses for your offense, and when all else fails, a terrific Tactical View interface lets you re-chart your course at any time. Nothing “Earth” does represents a seismic shift for tower defense, but the change of possession is a welcome twist for a genre that could use a few more of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the multiple campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the others driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress. “Earth’s” Xbox 360 version is late out the gate compared to its counterparts, and the control pad is (while plenty sufficient) less ideal than the other versions’ touchscreen and mouse controls. But along with the Tokyo missions that previously were exclusive to the Mac and PC, the 360 version gets a set of six Tactical Trials scenarios that (true to the name) task you with making creative use of limited resources to complete trials that play like riddles as much as they do missions.

DVD/Blu-ray 4/10/12: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, The Iron Lady, Into the Abyss, The Terror Experiment, Hidden

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (PG, 2011, Docurama)
There is no twist or secret to the journey Kevin Clash took from the day he turned his father’s coat into a puppet to the ah-ha moment that elevated a nearly-discarded puppet into the biggest sensation on Sesame Street. Clash’s ascent was — as ascents almost always are — a confluence of talent, passion, curiosity, sacrifice, selfless heroes and a relentless work effort that creates rather than awaits luck. But reinforcements of every generic lesson your parents and teachers peached about working hard and believing in yourself is rarely so joyously presented as it is here. Though most certainly a Cinderella story, “Being Elmo” cultivates its magic from the most unglamorous dregs of dream realization and the creative process, and though Clash never expresses it himself, the dues he paid shine though in the reflections of those who raised, discovered, tutored, collaborated and formed a new generation of dreamers who idolize and learn from him. If you’ve been where Clash has been or are there right now — within any profession and while hanging onto dreams of creating something wonderful in any medium — this isn’t to be missed.
Extras: Sundance Premiere Q&A with Clash and filmmakers, thoughts from the filmmakers, Tau Bennett (that name will mean something to you after you see the film) performing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, interview with John Tartaglia (who, among other things, is Clash’s Elmo understudy).

The Iron Lady (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
The Oscar checks out, because Meryl Streep most definitely brings her A-game as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Unfortunately, her vehicle doesn’t quite bring one of its own to match. “Lady” weaves together two separate chronologies to present two biopics in one — one moving traditionally forward to recount the highlights of Thatcher’s rise and fall as Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, the other standing still in the present as an elderly and slightly senile Thatcher ruminates about her past and argues with the ghost of her dead husband (Jim Broadbent). The decision not only to go there but visit often and stay awhile — “Lady” divides its time evenly between then and now — is a bold step outside the typical biopic-by-numbers methods. In fact, the scenes where Thatcher rages against her newfound dependency on others and unloads her angst on a ghost who growls back represent the best work the movie does at breaking walls down between its subject and audience. But once the point is made early, subsequent visits border on brazen tearjerker excess. And while Streep’s talent pulls those scenes back from the brink of overkill, they linger along that edge long enough to occasionally call their purpose into question. The more traditional look at Thatcher’s career subsequently suffers when it’s given half the time to do a whole movie’s job. “Lady’s” ultimate message resonates enough to convey its vision of Thatcher’s drive and humanity, but it’s stretched too thin to give that vision its full due. Alexandra Roach also stars as a young Thatcher.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

Into the Abyss (PG-13, 2011, Sundance Selects)
Time stands completely still during the fifth chapter of “Into the Abyss.” There, Fred Allen — the former captain of the Walls Unit Death House in Huntsville, Tex., and an overseer of more than 125 executions during his tenure — tells an eight-minute story about the execution that finally wrecked his ability to even endorse capital punishment, much less engage in it. Watching Allen unload his burden almost redeems “Abyss'” price of admission all by itself. Arguably, it has to do exactly that. The notion of an unvarnished look at capital punishment through Werner Herzog’s unique filter of compassionate but uncomfortable bluntness is enormously intriguing, and in flashes, this documentary demonstrates why. But “Abyss” parlays its premise into a heavy focus on a trio of murders that sentenced two people to death row, and the fallout from the case’s aftermath — with regard to the victims’ families, one alleged killer’s (also incarcerated) father, a woman who fell in love with the other alleged killer while fighting for his innocence — takes hold of the movie. Herzog is the master of calmly and warmly asking brutally uncomfortable questions that regularly get answers, and the conversations he has on film are enthralling in their explorations of everything from regret over choices not made to a paralyzing fear of answering the telephone in case more bad news awaits on the other end of the line. But a lot of “Abyss” also comes down to people pleading cases the movie can’t crack, and the actual process of capital punishment receives surprisingly little direct attention beyond Allen’s scene. If that’s what brought you here, what awaits may disappoint in spite of how well it’s presented. No extras.

The Terror Experiment (NR, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Were “The Terror Experiment” a defendant on trial, its lawyers might plead that their client is a victim of circumstance — a movie about zombies and terrorism that unwittingly got lumped into a crime wave of shoddy movies about zombies and shoddy movies about terrorism. Fleetingly, you might be sympathetic to the cause, because “Experiment’s” main protagonist — Cale (Jason London), a divorced dad whose wife works in the same building and whose daughter attends daycare there as well — is considerably more likable than your typical terror/zombie movie lead. He also isn’t alone, thanks to a respectably likable agent (Alicia Leigh Willis as Mandy) who happens to be interviewing for a job just as a government experiment gone wrong unleashes a miniature zombie apocalypse and sends the building into lockdown. But beyond the semi-novel concept of tolerable people in a zombie film, “Experiment” is hopelessly bankrupt in the idea department. Its concepts about zombies are plain as they come, and at this point, the notion of the attack being the work of patriots — per usual, to “save” America’s soul by rooting out its secrets — is more tired than movies about attacks from abroad. “Experiment’s” subplots fare no better: If any of the twists surprise you, then congratulations, because you’re probably watching your first movie and it only gets better from here. Though never unpleasant enough to be offensive, “Experiment” arguably shows nerve simply with its full-scale contentedness to do nothing countless other movies in two separately saturated genres haven’t done ad nauseam over the last 10 years alone. Earnest script or not, there’s no defending that.
Extra: Director commentary.

Hidden (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
Brian (Sean Clement) never cared much for his mother when she was alive, which is why he didn’t pay her respects after she passed. But even his disdain didn’t stop her from leaving him an entire monastery, which she’d converted into an addiction treatment center while conducting shady genetic experiments under the table. Those experiments led to a device — buried deep in the bowels of the monastery, of course — that’s capable of eradicating any addiction by manifesting it as its own living being. Naturally, as “Hidden” details in its first scene while Brian’s mom is still alive, the side effects of such a machine are dangerous and most likely deadly. Also a matter of course: pretty much everything else about “Hidden,” which takes a wild idea and fully squanders it on yet another movie about pretty people exploring a creepy abandoned building that was abandoned for good reason by a woman who also died for good reason. No one in “Hidden’s” cast of would-be victims is overly likable, and the shoddy cast struggles to deliver on archetypes and back stories — the awkward reunion with the ex, the friend who sees dollar signs in the monastery, the damsels in distress whose only abilities are crying, berating and relentlessly hurtling toward peril — that are painfully textbook. But “Hidden’s” most unfortunate victim is its own hook, which is silly but rife with fun sci-fi possibilities. It mostly goes to waste, and when it finally takes center stage, it’s merely a convoluted vessel for the twist you saw coming an hour ago. No extras.

Games 4/10/12: Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Splatters

Ridge Racer: Unbounded
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Bugbear Entertainment/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild violence)
Price: $60

Between the awkward subtitle and the fact that it neither looks nor plays like a “Ridge Racer” game, “Ridge Racer: Unbounded” arrives with a supremely unfortunate name as its introduction.

Happily, just about everything else is superlative going the other way. If this is the future of “Ridge Racer,” then so be it, because “Unbounded” is one of the most exhilarating arcade racing games ever made.

Per “Ridge Racer” tradition, drifting plays a key role in “Unbounded,” which includes a dedicated drift event as part of a large roster of single-player events centered around racing, time trials, “Burnout”-style car combat and occasional special events. Drifting (along with tailgating, trading paint and other dangerous driving feats) contributes to a power meter that, when full, lets you wreak some exceptional havoc on both your opponents and the track at large.

At its most benign, cashing in a full power meter is good for a quick shot of turbo. But it’s far more valuable as a means for fully obliterating another racer. Activate the power and ram a car before it depletes, and it’s good for a takedown that punishes your opponent and quickly refills your power almost completely. String together consecutive takedowns, and it’s the most fun you can have dominating the field. But with high bursts of speed come frequent opportunities to completely miss a perfect takedown and ram a wall instead. “Unbounded” is fast by default and completely reckless at top speed, and the risks, rewards, reflexes and snap decisions needed to succeed are appropriately thrilling.

A properly-timed power activation also allows for some visually spectacular track modification. Want to drive straight through a building for a shortcut while everyone else takes the road around it? Go right ahead. Again, though, you’d best time it right: Barrel into that building just as the meter empties, and the only wreckage will be your car.

The ensuing bedlam perfectly complements a blend of physics and heft that’s considerably different than the customary “Ridge Racer” laws of motion. Drifting no longer is a comically easy maneuver you can perform for a half-mile at a time: There is a pronounced weight to these cars that, along with a terrific sense of speed and momentum, turns every drift and power activation into a risky play. Different cars handle with varying levels of ease, and there are instances where a touch too much can cause a tailspin that dooms your race position.

That can be problematic, because “Unbounded’s” single difficulty setting is fair but harsh. Commit some ugly blunders, and you’ll find yourself in 12th place with no way to scrape back to third or better (which, in races, is required to pass the event). A persistent upgrade track means even a pitiful finish brings some reward in terms of experience points that eventually unlock new events and better cars. But the goal remains to place or win, and “Unbounded” won’t hold your hand and take you there. That’s refreshing, and it’s genuinely satisfying to ace an event, but if you’re easily discouraged, consider yourself warned.

“Unbounded’s” upgrade path carries over to multiplayer (eight players, online only), and while the head-to-head races are as straightforward as online racing gets, it gets the job done.

Much more interesting are the community challenges. “Unbounded” includes a surprisingly versatile track editor, and you can create your own “city” by packaging created tracks and events together. Your creations are shareable online, and “Unbounded” arranges the content into time-limited (some an hour, some a day) challenges where players worldwide compete for the best score. The event creator’s score is prominently on display as well, and even if you can’t best all comers, there’s immense satisfaction in outclassing a player in an event he or she designed.


Xenoblade Chronicles
For: Wii
From: Monolith Soft/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, partial nudity, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)
Price: $50

No single gaming genre is mired in a longer slump than the Japanese role-playing game, which (scattered exceptions aside, naturally) has been consistently reeling for years.

“Xenoblade Chronicles” is the arguable slumpbuster — a massive adventure that arrives with significant fanfare and, instead of using that hype as a crutch, cashes it in to teach a tired genre some overdue new tricks. It liberally adopts concepts that have propelled Western RPGs forward, but merges them with a flavor and storytelling approach that leaves no doubt where its lineage lies.

Crucially, “Chronicles” lays most of it — a monstrous open world, versatile side quests, customizable armor and weaponry run wild — almost immediately at your feet following an opening sequence that’s similarly generous with its combat system.

When it doesn’t get in its own way, that combat is stellar. Like an early Bioware RPG (or, for JRPG fans, “Final Fantasy XII”), “Chronicles” combines real-time battlefield awareness and turn-based strategy. You have continuous, direct control over your character’s position, and because the action doesn’t break for turns, he or she will default to a basic attack against the nearest available enemy unless you dictate otherwise.

And you will, because default attacks get you nowhere. Thriving in battle means managing an array of skills, monitoring allies’ statuses and health, and keeping party morale high enough to execute special chain attacks and (if necessary) revive fallen comrades.

With a story that lands comfortably in the 50- to 100-hour range (dependent on your affinity for exploration, side quests and other electives), “Chronicles” affords plenty of time to get comfortable with combat and master the advanced techniques it gradually introduces.

But if there’s one aspect that stands out alongside the system’s depth, it’s how fast it is. There are no random battles in “Chronicles” — many potential enemies outright ignore you unless you engage them — but as soon as you’re in an enemy’s sights, the action kicks straight into fifth gear. Managing the particulars would be a cakewalk in a turn-based RPG, but it’s an exciting challenge when there’s no breather between snap decisions.

Occasionally, the system is caffeinated to a fault. If nearby enemies sniff a fight, they may jump in, and suddenly four enemies swells to 12. The camera is problematic by default, and it’s a mess when attempting to contain battles this sprawling. The chaos will frequently cost you the fight, especially if those wandering enemies are level 75 creatures who can obliterate your level 16 hide in one hit. (Fortunately, death is merely an inconvenience: Defeated enemies respawn, but “Chronicles” revives you at the nearest landmark with all items and collected experience points — even from the losing battle — still intact.)

Other nagging issues abound. “Chronicles” takes a convenient cue from Western RPGs and lets you warp to landmarks you’ve previously discovered, but the map interface is a hassle to use for general exploration. A passive mechanic that stops a fight to show you an enemy’s future attack is, while clever, disruptive to the combat’s tempo. The story itself is watered down by its immense length, and characters repeat the same annoying catchphrases way too often in battle.

Finally, though primarily the Wii’s fault, “Chronicles'” visual presentation leaves something to be desired. It’s visually sufficient, but it’s impossible not to wonder what this world would look like in high definition.

But “Chronicles” does too much too well for long-starved JRPG fans to fret over quibbles like these. Though strained, the story nonetheless gratifies with strong, likable characters who embrace rather than sulk toward their destiny. And with so much left up to players to decide — from character relationships to gear customization to the minor but wonderful ability to save anywhere — it’s a treat rather than a chore to carry that story to its conclusion.


The Splatters
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live)
From: SpikySnail Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

On paper, “The Splatters” sounds familiar enough. The object is to clear clusters of orbs scattered around each level, and doing so entails launching smiling blobs (known as Splatters) toward them at the angle and power of your choosing. Along with a three-star scoring system, comparisons to any number of mobile games would appear inevitable. But the Splatters aren’t called Splatters just because. Eventually — be it via collision or combustion — the Splatters indeed splatter into an unwieldy liquid whose properties and subsequent splash effect are exponentially dicier to handle than some angry bird. “The Splatters” offers a handful of maneuvers that let you change direction mid-flight, launch a powerful but messy kamikaze attack, and even rewind your active Splatter’s flight path while its physical instability and the surrounding level continue progressing forward. Chaining these and other tricks is imperative toward achieving three-star scores and sharing brag-worthy gameplay clips on the online community channel, but intricate levels and haphazard physics means even completing these 65 levels — sorted into basic, combo-centric and trick shot-centric flavors — a deviously fun challenge that goes well beyond simple aiming and firing. The challenge ramps up early and significantly, and the mercurial physics elude complete mastery even with practice. But responsive controls and an easy means for instantly resetting a level if a strategy goes south make the pursuit of those stars fun and frustration-free.

DVD/Blu-ray 4/3/12: We Bought a Zoo, War Horse, Eagleheart S1, Bob: The Complete Series, Regular Show: Slack Pack, The Double Hour, Chasing Madoff

We Bought a Zoo (PG, 2011, Fox)
Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) wife has passed away, his teenage son (Colin Ford) just got expelled, and his young daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) finds the city too loud for her liking. But when Benjamin decides it’s time for a fresh start in the country, even he — adventure journalist by trade though he is — doesn’t know what to do when the large and surprisingly cheap plot of land he falls in love with comes with a dormant but full-blown zoo attached. Obviously, as the title infers, and much to his daughter’s glee, he buys the zoo. Not so obvious is how he’ll restore it, reopen it and retain the employees (Scarlett Johansson, Angus Macfadyen and Patrick Fugit, among others) who have continued working there for free in hopes of a new owner swooping in to save it. If you’re cynically inclined, perhaps you think you have “We Bought a Zoo” — which comes based on the real Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name — completely figured out. If so, good for you. But if you’ve pegged “Zoo” as two hours of predictable schmaltziness, you’ve pegged it wrong. It’s genuinely funny, sometimes dryly and bitterly so. And it’s cathartically harsh, credibly heartbreaking, a little bit sassy and just a little bit cynical itself, thanks for asking. There’s nothing neat about buying a zoo, and while “Zoo” knows exactly which buttons it’s pushing, it’s keenly aware of the buttons everyone expects it to push. If you pegged it as a feel-great story that truly leaves you feeling great without taking manufactured measures to do so, congratulations: You have it figured out after all.
Extras: Director/editor commentary with JB Smoove (who has a small but very memorable part), behind-the-scenes feature.

War Horse (PG-13, 2011, Disney)
Fueled by pride, and perhaps alcohol, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) dearly overpaid at auction for a horse who isn’t even built to do the job for which he needed a horse in the first place. Think his wife (Emily Watson) is gonna be mad about that one? Oh yeah. But Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has grand plans for the horse, henceforth named Joey, and until the onset of World War I compels Ted to sell the horse for profit to the British cavalry, the two are inseparable friends. Clearly, as the title implies, “War Horse” is headed for darker times once the war overturns the lives of every character within. But “Horse’s” first act sets a tonal precedent — as amusing, endearing and fun-loving as it is dark and dramatic — and it’s a tone that endures as Joey hoofs it from one relationship and adventure to the next. “Horse” leaves itself open for all manner of criticism: At 146 minutes, it’s longer than it needed be, and even with all that storytelling room, it occasionally feels rushed in its effort to transition from one chapter of Joey’s life to the next. But Joey provides “Horse” all the consistency — and, really, charm — it needs with his constant, commanding presence at the center of everything. When the focus is on him and not everything that’s exploding and going sideways around him, the minutes melt away, and while the sum total of his life experiences is too crazy to believe, it’s a whole lot of fun to believe it anyway.
Extras: Seven behind-the-scenes features.

Eagleheart: Season One (NR, 2010, Adult Swim)
U.S. Marshall Chris Monsanto (Chris Elliott) has watched at least three partners die on his watch — and all, unbelievably, while facing off against the same criminal mastermind. Rather than, say, throw him off the force, Monsanto’s superiors try a radical new idea and give him two partners (Maria Thayer and Brett Gelman) instead of the usual one. They must be on to something, because not only is the mastermind dead roughly 10 minutes later, but so are numerous other villains in the 11 short episodes that follow. “Eagleheart” sort of feels like a parody — of 1980s crime dramas, of police procedurals in general, of human behavior as a whole and of Elliott’s own career up to now. But it’s also an Adult Swim show, which means it has to cram everything into an 11-minute window so densely packed that its energy goes beyond parody and into total hysteria. It’s crass, bloody and jubilantly stupid, but it’s so supremely confident in its stupidity as to be sharply, hilariously brilliant. Chris Elliott detractors need not apply — of course — but this might be his most gloriously dumb body of work yet.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus 20 commentary tracks (not a typo), scenes from the unaired pilot (with Conan O’Brien), deleted scenes, outtakes, NY Comic Con panel footage and a kill reel.

Bob: The Complete Series (NR, 1992, CBS)
Bob Newhart once joked on “The Tonight Show” that, in the wake of “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart,” his next show would have to be called “Bob” to maintain order. Sure enough, it was — which may be news to you if you’re one of the many who apparently never knew it existed. “Bob” lasted 1 1/2 rocky seasons on CBS, and this complete series set offers a morbidly enjoyable chance to watch a network executive-instilled retooling completely doom a show at the flip of a switch. (If you’re wondering when Betty White shows up, just skip to disc four; she’s part of the second season’s near-total cast overhaul.) History lesson aside, the turbulence is a real shame: When left to its own devices, “Bob” is every bit as funny (albeit differently so) as Newhart’s other shows. As cartoonist Bob McKay, Newhart also gets to play a slightly different version of his usual character — a little bit underhanded, more prone to creating mischief than simply haplessly witnessing it — without betraying the brand of comedy for which he’s known. Even the onset of early-1990s edge can’t mess up someone so timelessly funny. Think of this set as the 25 bizarro-world episodes of “Newheart” you never saw, and suddenly “Bob” feels like a pleasant surprise more than just another network television cautionary tale.
Contents: 33 episodes, plus an interview with White and a digital copy of McKay’s “Mad-Dog” comic book.

Regular Show: Slack Pack (NR, 2010, Cartoon Network)
The name is so mundane as to be funny in its own right, but “Regular Show” has a point: If Mordecai wasn’t a blue jay and Rigby wasn’t a raccoon — and if their neighbors and co-workers didn’t include a yeti, a Frankenstein’s monster and a short-tempered anthropomorphic gumball machine — this would be just another show about two lazy 23-year-old groundskeepers who hold onto their jobs despite constantly abandoning them to embark on crazy adventures. Yep. Past the fact that those adventures take the gang to the moon, into the multiverse, on the back of a flying duck and inside a 1980s cell phone, it’s just another show about slackers getting by. “Regular Show” is, like its Cartoon Network sibling “Adventure Time,” wonderfully good at finding and mining the vast middle ground between a cartoon suitable for Saturday mornings and the unscrupulous ball of terror only Adult Swim can safely contain. Traces of stoner comedies are everywhere, but the exterior is so charming and the adventures so grade school juvenile that “Show” (which, it should be noted, is also legitimately funny) is that rare show that has true all-ages appeal. Unfortunately, and also like “Time,” Cartoon Network is making you wait for proper season sets. “Time” is finally getting its first season release in July after producing two compilations similar to this one over the last six months, so if you’re not interested in buying these episodes again later, some patience should serve you well.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus a short.

The Double Hour (NR, 2009, Flatiron Film Company)
“You look better with your hair down” is the last thing a hotel guest says to chambermaid Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) before she jumps to her death moments later. Sadly for Sonia, the guest she barely knew isn’t the only one who feels this way about her hair. “The Double Hour” closes out its first act as a story about a speed dating connection between two people (Sonia and Guido, played by Filippo Timi) who bond over separately horrible days, and it begins act two with a robbery that disrupts what should have been a quiet date in the woods. Each of these events is connected by more than simple luck run awry, and spoiling even the early twists would give away too much. Vaguely speaking, “Hour” merits close study with the way it rearranges its developments — the “things aren’t always as they seem” tag enthusiastically applies — and the movie pays off countless little early details with a slew of revelations that trickle down during its second half. The only problem? The one place it plays the coy card without fully paying it off — during its very last batch of scenes — is the one place you least want that to happen. The ending isn’t so flat as to sour all that precedes it, but it leaves a bitter taste just the same. In Italian with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Chasing Madoff (NR, 2010, Cohen Media Group/MPI)
You know that episode of “The Simpsons” where Mr. Burns submits an absurdly self-aggrandizing autobiographical movie to the Springfield Film Festival? Replace Monty Burns with Harry Markopolos and cut the budget by 90 percent, and here’s the real-life equivalent. “Chasing Madoff” is a documentary about how Markopolos, a securities analyst, and a small circle of peers called shenanigans on a Ponzi scheme that would unravel 10 years later during the 2008 financial crisis. As a story about Bernie Madoff and the bizarre firewall that protected him, Markopolos’s point — that any 30-minute review of Madoff’s trading records could have brought him down, full stop — is incredible. But this point is the only point on offer by “Madoff,” which spends precious little time exploring Madoff himself and entirely too much time letting Markopolos salute himself. “Madoff” largely is a talking head fest, with Markopolos and others addressing the camera head on. But in a bizarre reach for presentational flair, it complements these scenes with interstitials in which Markopolos basically dramatizes himself. Markopolos, you might be surprised to hear, cannot act, and “Madoff” only gets weirder the longer he carries on about the many ways he was ready for a literal shootout against Madoff’s people and even agents of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. If everything Markopolos did to deaf ears is true, it’s understandable why he wants his recognition. But when you come for some insight and instead get a creepy victory lap and a terrible thespian demo reel, it’s a disservice to the effort than a celebration.
Extras: Director commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes.

Games 4/3/12: Kid Icarus: Uprising, Ninja Gaiden 3, Closure

Kid Icarus: Uprising
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Project Sora/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Are you willing to suffer for your hobby? Because “Kid Icarus: Uprising” may be the best game you’ll ever have to endure literal pain to enjoy.

It’s also the wildest reinvention of an inconic Nintendo character since Mario started talking and running around in three dimensions.

Though it resurrects the same characters and themes that have been in hibernation since the original “Kid Icarus” games came and went more than two decades ago, “Uprising” is otherwise a wholly different animal. Those older games were slightly methodical 2D platformers. “Uprising” arrives in full 3D — both dimensionally and stereoscopically — and is anything but meticulous.

When Pit (that’s you) is in flight, “Uprising” is a high-flying on-rails shooter. The circle pad controls Pit’s lateral and longitudinal movement, but he continually soars forward by himself. The stylus and touchscreen handle his targeting reticule, and the L button allows him to fire his weapon either rapidly (hold it down) or powerfully (lay off, let it charge, press L to unleash).

Having to balance those three disparate inputs is a bit dicey at any speed, and “Uprising’s” action doesn’t roll by at any speed. It’s fantastically fast and — depending on where you set the difficulty via a clever slider that pays more rewards and unlocks more secret areas the higher you set it — quite challenging.

Holding the 3DS and balancing those inputs is such a clumsy proposition, in fact, that Nintendo included a plastic stand that does the holding part for you. It’s an amusing solution that makes “Uprising” the most unportable portable game since Nintendo’s Virtual Boy days, but it’s an effective one.

Got all that? Good, because when Pit touches down on the ground during the second half of these levels, things get even harrier.

For the most part, the inputs remain the same. But when Pit has his feet on the ground, you exercise full, 360-degree control over them. L still fires and the touchscreen still aims. But having full range of motion also necessitates a need to control the camera independently of Pit. “Uprising” maps that to the touchscreen as well, only via brisk (and therefore imprecise) swipes instead of the drags used for aiming. The line between making Pit amble (slow push on the circle pad) and dash (quick push) forward is similarly imperfect, especially when an accidental dash sends him over an edge.

Harnessing this control scheme, even with the stand’s considerable help, is awkward in short bursts and very literally painful during extended plays. “Uprising’s” isn’t as fast on the ground as it is in the air, but it’s comparable, and it’s crying out for a second circle pad to balance the load. (Bafflingly, while “Uprising” supports Nintendo’s Circle Pad Pro attachment, it’s only for left-handed support and not to enable dual-stick controls.)

And yet, “Uprising’s” action is fast and exciting enough to make the pain worth it. The level design is insane, and the enemy and boss designs run the gamut from ginormous to comically weird. Pit’s story, which plays out with full voice acting in the second screen while you play uninterrupted, is engaging and sharply funny. It’s also lengthy and — thanks to a scoring system, the aforementioned slider and a massive array of discoverable weapons, gear and special powers — highly replayable.

Amazingly, “Uprising” even has a multiplayer option (six players, local wireless or online) with lone wolf deathmatch and a clever team deathmatch option in which teams share a single lifebar. You can bring any weapon you’ve discovered into multiplayer matches, but the better your weapon, the more damage your team’s lifebar suffers when you die. The action is, predictably, complete bedlam — imagine six people dealing with that control scheme and each other at once — but as an amusing throw-in for a content-loaded game, it suffices just fine.


Ninja Gaiden 3
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Tecmo Koei
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

The more credit you give “Ninja Gaiden 3” for respecting your ability to play it, the likelier it is to make you rue the thought.

That alone makes “NG3” — a beautiful, blazingly fast action game that’s also a descendent of one of the most perfect action games ever made — a crushing letdown.

Superficially, “NG3” looks a lot like 2004’s “Ninja Gaiden,” a game so cherished that Tecmo keeps reissuing it (most recently, for the Vita in February). Ryu Hayabusa (that’s you) remains one of gaming’s most agile action heroes. The places you’ll visit are beautiful and diverse, and while many of the enemies you face look like reskinned versions of enemies you saw already, the bosses — from a T-Rex to a giant witch whose body becomes a level unto itself — are satisfactorily outrageous.

In flashes, “NG3” also fights like the original “Gaiden,” which treated every single enemy as a significant danger and provided the ingredients — a healthy offensive and defensive arsenal for Ryu, some cunning intelligence for his enemies — to turn the most ordinary fight into a showdown more tense than many games’ boss encounters.

But those flashes — where you’re evading a pattern of attack in perfect time and countering to turn the tide — are fleeting. “NG3’s” tendency to crowd every encounter with roughly six to 10 mindless grunts leaves little room for showdowns, and respecting your enemies’ intelligence simply leads to cheap, frustrating barrages of knockdowns where the game effectively strips control from you. You’re better off just mashing the attack and evade buttons mindlessly and relentlessly — which is about as much fun as it sounds — because that’s all your enemies are doing to you.

The result looks spectacular, in part because “NG3” takes a page from other games and uses interactive cutscenes to add flair to Ryu’s kills. But the satisfaction of a grueling fight intelligently won — the main pillar of the original “Gaiden” and, to a dampened degree, its sequel — is just about gone this time around.

Boss fights, sadly, rarely fare better. There is a gem or two, and the one-on-one format certainly provides some badly-needed focus to the action, but sloppiness and repeat encounters abound all the same. More than not, the same rule of engagement still applies: Give a boss enemy’s attack pattern more credit than it deserves, and prepare to get burned and just mash away on the next (and likely successful) attempt.

Elsewhere, “NG3” takes steps forward and backward to ultimately settle comfortably into mediocrity. A surprising attempt to tell a more personal Ryu Hayabusa story results in the usual incoherence, but the presence of one character lets the story to fulfill its mission to partial effect. As bloodthirsty ninjas go, Ryu’s a pretty nice guy. Who knew?

The not-entirely-welcome infusion of interactive cutscenes and quick time events has a similarly mixed effect. “NG3” looks great when Ryu’s cutting a helicoptor to pieces while it’s in flight, but it screeches to a halt every time you have to laboriously press the triggers to climb a wall. When did simply pushing up on the joystick stop being enough?

“NG3” also marks the series’ first hand at online multiplayer, and the result likely matches your expectations for it. The solo or co-op Ninja Trials mode presents no-frills missions that load up the screen with enough enemies to bring down the framerate, while Clan Battle (eight players) lets you cut your friends to pieces via team deathmatch. “NG3” bakes in a leveling and upgrades system to encourage replayability, but the sloppy gameplay that ails the storyline also persists here. And without that story to pull it along, the novelty runs out pretty quickly.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Eyebrow Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

If it’s in the dark, it doesn’t exist in “Closure,” a deviously clever 2D sidescroller that once again proves all the brilliant ideas for rethinking 2D games aren’t yet taken. In “Closure,” the vast majority of a level exists in complete blackness, and anything that exists in blackness doesn’t exist at all. The object is to employ the available light sources — some static, some maneuverable like adjustable floodlights, some you can push around or carry with you — to design a tenable path to the exit. If the path in front of you is entirely blackened, you need to illuminate it, lest you fall into a bottomless pit of nothingness. And if walls block the exit from all sides, you must suppress the light to make one of those walls disappear. Sounds easy, right? Sure. But “Closure’s” method of terrain manipulation represents an abstract new way to get from A to B, and success frequently entails disobeying age-old 2D gaming truths and forcing yourself to think along dramatically different new lines. Naturally, just as the new normal settles in, “Closure’s” 80-plus levels grow increasingly labyrinthine, with multi-level cause-and-effect puzzles, moving parts you can and cannot control, and keys and other objects you must protect from the abyss while also watching your own step. Fortunately, wicked though “Closure” can get, the process of conquering it is aggravation-free. There’s no timer rushing you along, and if you fall or have to reset the level, it restarts immediately without fuss. The pleasant demeanor extends to the visual presentation, which resembles a black-and-white woodcut illustration come charmingly alive. Monochromatic games are en vogue right now, but “Closure’s” stab at it is a fresh departure from its dour counterparts.