5/29/12: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Perfect Sense, Coriolanus, The Jungle Bunch, Goon, The Aggression Scale, Silver Tongues, Man on a Ledge

We Need to Talk About Kevin (R, 2011, Oscilloscope)
We don’t know what Kevin (Ezra Miller) did, but it’s jarringly clear he did something. And with complete strangers striking his mother (Tilda Swinton as Eva) on the sidewalk and calling her a murderer, it’s a safe bet he did something bad. Set along two primary timelines — one post-incident and one that flashes back to a younger Kevin’s (first Rock Duer, then Jasper Newell) coming into being — “We Need to Talk About Kevin” eventually meets itself in the middle and reveals all. But with considerable respect to Miller’s portrayal as the Kevin who purportedly does something terrible, “Kevin’s” out-and-out most unsettling scenes take place in the past, where a rattled Eva faces off against a younger Kevin whom doctors swear is normal but whose stoic, silent contempt most definitely does not feel normal. The need to know what ultimately happened is all “Kevin” even needs to make its case as compelling entertainment. But even if that’s all you care about, the road to that revelation — paved several times over with frayed nerves and looks that could kill — is too unnerving to make that anticipation feel like a wait. John C. Reilly, as Kevin’s father, also stars.
Extras: 30-minute behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, additional footage from the opening scene.

Perfect Sense (R, 2011, IFC Films)
It starts with a sudden and furious bout of grief, and if it hits you, there’s no escaping or overcoming it until it’s ready to pass. Once it does, though, it’s your sense of smell — which we take for granted both as a utility and an emotional trigger all its own — is gone. That’s the origins of the contagion creeping into the population in “Perfect Sense,” which takes the virus movie blueprint and converts it into a staggering allegory for the things we really lose when our bodies betray us. In the pit of “Sense’s” stomach is the story of how Susan (Eva Green), a scientist frantically racing to decipher the disease as it moves past smell and into people’s other senses, meets Michael (Ewan McGregor), a charming but womanizing chef whose livelihood takes on new function as the purpose of food itself shifts from delicacy to utility. But some of “Sense’s” most lasting images come courtesy of characters with no name, who flash past as the movie quickly darts around the world while it walks through the symptoms of another fading sense. The obvious point — that we’re all, far and wide, kind of the same in some fundamental way — could have so easily devolved into soulless, preachy pretension. But “Sense” is too raw and too dialed into its characters (nameless or not) to even sniff such pretension. Nor, thankfully, is it some maudlin lesson from Hollywood about how precious the little things are in life. “Sense,” which is oddly celebratory if it’s any one ruling thing, is equipped to take you to those conclusions, but the respect it shows in not dragging you there makes all the difference in the world.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Coriolanus (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
One need not be presumptuous to presume this updated retelling of “Coriolanus” — William Shakespeare’s tragedy about the rise and fall of a real-life fifth century Roman general — arrives with a point to make. Fortunately, one also need not be generous to enjoy “Coriolanus” in spite of its inability — whether by design or simply by falling short — to do any such thing. “Coriolanus” applies Shakespeare’s words to a fictional, contemporary and war-ravaged Rome, which watches its feared and revered general (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs, as Caius Martius Coriolanus) succumb to the will of a power-hungry mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and eventually the countrymen who once feared him. Expelled from the place he ruled and hungry for revenge, Coriolanus attempts to ally with the man (Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius) who previously was his archenemy, and off we go. “Coriolanus” provides yet another testament to the timelessness of Shakespeare’s concepts and conflicts. And that, along the novelty of generals, insurgents and cable news anchors evoking 16th century language while wielding 21st century assault rifles and teleprompters, will have to do. If there’s a message about modern-day politics and war in “Coriolanus,” it’s so flat as to be invisible. But the story about the angry general who raises total hell in a snarling, screaming attempt to get back at his mom? It resonates, furiously and fantastically, and needs absolutely no accompanying fable to justify its entertaining existence.
Extras: Fiennes commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Jungle Bunch (NR, 2012, Universal)
For reasons we never will know, Maurice grew up in the jungle instead of the arctic and is convinced he’s a tiger instead of a penguin. Furthermore, he carries around a fishbowl with a goldfish he claims is his son and protege, and he is orange and striped like a tiger. (Paint? Genetic anomaly? Anyone’s guess.) But rather than dismiss him as a nut, Maurice’s jungle friends believe not only that he a tiger, but a great warrior tiger whose punches and kicks could make Chuck Norris run home to mom. Somehow, that legend traveled all the way to the arctic, where a colony of penguins, facing threats from a mob of walruses who want their food, have sent two of their own to the jungle to request his services. Maurice, who has no idea what a walrus even is, happily obliges. Cute, right? In fact it is. In the suddenly large annals of computer-animated talking animal movies, “The Jungle Bunch” doesn’t stand as any kind of remarkable achievement. But considering how absolutely grating and faux-edgy so many of those movies are, the simple fact that the silly-and-proud-of-it “Bunch” is wholly pleasant from start to finish makes it easy to recommend. The only arguable knock is the short 58-minute length. But that also keeps “Bunch” focused on its story instead of worthless pop-culture references and other filler, and if you want more, the 26 shorts in the extras are good for another 40-plus minutes.
Extras: The aforementioned shorts.

Goon (R, 2011, Magnolia)
Doug (Seann William Scott) isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but as abysmally socially awkward bouncers go, he’s a very special talent. That becomes crystal clear to a minor league hockey coach when, during a game, a stray taunt from his best friend (Jay Baruchel) inspires a player to crash the stands, wail on Doug, and make nary a dent before Doug politely but efficiently knocks him out with one counterpunch. One phone call later, Doug — who can barely even skate — is in pads at practice. “Goon,” in essence, is like “Rookie of the Year,” only instead of a charming kid winning the World Series with his magical arm, it’s a socially backward hockey enforcer punching people’s teeth in during minor league hockey games that may or may not end victoriously. “Goon” itself marches to a similar rhythm — sort of clumsily paced as it veers between dumb, cute, dark and dry, but earnest enough to make its rough edges endearing and smart enough to capture both its sport and the pains of social anxiety in a heartfelt but not always flattering light. It’s not quite “Slap Shot,” but it plays in that same ballpark, and that’s no easy feat. Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill and Eugene Levy also star.
Extras: Director/Baruchel commentary, Power Play Mode (which bundles 45 minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes features and interviews behind an optional overlay the pops up while you watch the movie), deleted scenes, Baruchel/Scott interview, two standalone behind-the-scenes features.

The Aggression Scale (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
It is mind-meltingly amazing that 21 years had to pass before someone escorted “Home Alone’s” adorable sadism all the way down the rabbit hole. But when an out-on-bail mob boss (Ray Wise) orders his minions (Dana Ashbrook, Derek Mears) to recover money stolen from him so he can fund an escape from his prison sentence, the murderous hunt brings those henchmen to the front door of Bill (Boyd Kestner), whose son (Ryan Hartwig as Owen) was curiously released into his father’s custody despite a track record of disturbing and violent behavior. Nothing can explain how a mob boss charged with murder is free on bail, but you probably can guess what Bill used to persuade the powers that be to keep his son out of an institution. In any event, the only facts that matter are that Owen is deranged, dangerously creative and, upon arrival of the uninvited guests, justifiably motivated to make their stay as horrifically unpleasant as possible. “The Aggression Scale,” like “Home Alone,” frequently (but knowingly) plays like an elaborate excuse to blow off some violent steam for a righteous cause. There is nothing playful about what Owen and his adversaries set out to do to each other, nor does “Scale” culminate with a sweet scene about the meaning of Christmas. But as is finally demonstrable here, there are advantages to presenting payback without the cute strings attached. Nothing about “Scale” is the least bit amusing, but that doesn’t mean it won’t send you home smiling.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Silver Tongues (NR, 2011, Virgil Films)
“Silver Tongues” is the story of Rachel (Emily Meade) and Alex (Tate Ellington), a pair of newlyweds going out to dinner on their honeymoon. Or rather, that’s what “Tongues” appears to be about until Rachel and Alex, needing a table, run into another couple (Lee Tergesen and Enid Graham as Gerry and Joan, respectively), who offer to share their table before turning the couple’s young marriage upside down and subsequently hijacking their movie. This development complicates things considerably, because there’s no easy way to explain who Gerry and Joan are and what they’re up to. Even their own movie, whether it can’t or simply won’t, declines to make the effort. “Tongues'” synopsis describes its star couple as a pair roving from town to town playing a game of deception that, eventually, catches up to them. But why? “Tongues” doesn’t even allude to a reason, and even assuming they’re in it for the thrill means taking a leap through some baffling gaps of logic. A little opacity is hardly a bad thing: If nothing else, it gives people something to speculate about after the credits roll. But the window into “Tongues'” soul is sealed and obscured by a need for all involved — from Gerry to Joan to their marks and the filmmakers who put their story together — to be aggressively cloy to the point of exhaustion. Character motivations count for precious little when those characters so vigilantly keep the audience at arm’s length and then some.
Extras: Two short films, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Man on a Ledge (PG-13, 2012, Summit Entertainment)
On a morning like any other, Nick (Sam Worthington) checks into a hotel, heads upstairs to his room and promptly steps out onto the ledge, bringing midtown Manhattan to a standstill. Why’s he out there? A flashback (no spoilers) to a month prior provides a little insight, and the reasons trickle in from there. Then they march in, and before long, it’s a tidal wave of characters, contrivances and turn-offs. “Man on a Ledge’s” simple title and early opacity point to an intriguing mystery waiting to unravel, but the more it opens its mouth, the faster that intrigue seeps out. By the end, “Ledge” is so deeply mired in muddled dumb thriller territory that it’s hard to even care how it ends, much less withstand the pages of laughably bad dialogue needed to get there. Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie and Ed Harris also star.
Extras: behind-the-scenes feature, Banks commentary on the trailer (no, seriously).

DVD/Blu-ray 5/22/12: The Secret World of Arrietty, Newlyweds, Love Etc., The Woman in Black, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, 95 Miles to Go, Route 66 CS

The Secret World of Arrietty (G, 2010, Disney)
Were it only so simple, “The Secret World of Arrietty” would simply be a story about a boy named Shawn and a girl named Arrietty. But Shawn, who has suffered from a heart condition since birth and suffered doubly from the pains of negligent parents, is no ordinary boy. And Arrietty — all of five inches tall and one of a secret depleted race of miniature people, called Borrowers, who fear full-sized human brings but nick crumbs of their resources to survive — makes Shawn look plain by comparison. When Shawn spots Arrietty during one of her borrowing missions, it’s enough to provoke Arrietty’s family to flee, and with respect to not spoiling what happens next, let’s just call it minor bedlam and leave it vaguely at that. Studio Ghibli’s animated movies have very deservedly garnered acclaim for their stunning visual presentation, with classically hand-drawn and hand-painted images so lavishly detailed as to outclass anything a computer could muster. But the true star of these movies remains the scripts through which Hayao Miyazaki designs soulful stories that challenge the notion of how a G-rated movie can speak to its audience. “Arrietty” is rarely tidy with regard to how it paces itself, and where most every other all-ages movie would assume whatever position was necessary to brace for the comfortable and easy ending, this one remains as steadfast in its final moment as it was in its first. That it does so at no expense whatsoever to its imagination — and the magic that imagination brings alive — is a testament not simply to “Arrietty’s” creators, but also the immense respect those creators have for all who see their work.
Extras: The original Japanese language track, two music videos, original Japanese storyboards and promotional material.

Newlyweds (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
Like a lot of newlyweds, Buzzy (Edward Burns, who also wrote and directed) and Katie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) have convinced themselves they can make the honeymoon period last forever. In fairness to them, their plans and reasons actually sound just sensible enough to maybe possibly allow them to pull it off. Or they would if Katie’s sister (Marsha Dietlein), herself in year 18 of a suddenly-turbulent marriage, didn’t dislike Buzzy. And perhaps if Katie’s ex-husband (Dara Coleman) wasn’t still hanging around (albeit politely and amicably). And especially if Buzzy’s completely unhinged sister (Kerry Bishé) didn’t crash into town unannounced and sleep on their couch while dealing with some old business in spectacularly ill-advised fashion. Life, as it’s wont to do, derails everything. Fortunately, life is precisely what “Newlyweds” is equipped to handle. Not quite a comedy but not quite a drama (and not quite a mockumentary, either, even though its characters address the camera once in a rare while), “Newlyweds” also is neither too serious to enjoy nor too silly to strike a nerve. As a story about life, marriage and mistakes made, it just is. For a movie compromising against its will, that would be faint praise in the face of calling it bland. But there’s no concept “Newlyweds” understands as keenly as it does compromise, and its ability to nail those disparate moods so consistently well is a testament rather than a concession to that.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two Burns interviews.

Love Etc. (NR, 2010, Virgil Films)
The premise of “Love Etc.” — a documentary about a handful of New Yorkers in different stages of relationships, or lack thereof — is as unassuming as its name. And in the annals of media that attempt to offer sweeping new insights into the longest-ruling mystery of life, it bears no such pretense. That, turns out, is its best asset. “Etc” runs the gamut with its subjects, which include a long-married couple dealing with the effects of dimentia, a single father of two, soon-to-be newlyweds with severe doubts about their future, graduating high schoolers navigating their first relationship, and a single gay man who wants to be a father. But rather than use them as generic conduits for a bigger story about love, society or whatever, “Etc” just lets them be the story and leaves it at that. No narrators, no talking heads, no hypotheses, no interference. Whether it’s a credit to the people “Etc” picked, their willingness to open up on camera or the filmmakers’ gift for taking stories we all recognize and presenting them with a consistently engaging energy, that’s all it needs to do. If you take something larger than entertainment away from it, consider it a pleasant bonus on top of a pleasant surprise.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director introduction, screening filmmaker panel.

The Woman in Black (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
With respect to the many ways and many screens on which one now can watch “The Woman in Black,” if you waited until now to see it and can’t replicate the movie theater experience, you probably missed your chance to see it as it was meant to be seen. Set in early 20th century England, “Black” begins as the story of a widowed (and badly grief-addled) father and lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur) who visits a sleepy village in a muddled attempt to clean up the affairs of a deceased client. Once there, he discovers there’s something the entire town is (somewhat poorly, thanks to a haunting or two) hiding from him. Arthur dares to investigate, and “Black” pushes back with a ghost story that trades equally on atmosphere and its main character’s grief. That’s the premise on paper, anyway. In action, “Black” is a delicate, creepy movie that frequently eschews dialogue for scenes at a time while Arthur solemnly and gingerly navigates his unfamiliar surroundings. It can do that, too, because under the right conditions — a dark room with a good sound system, specifically — “Black” creeps along at a nervous pace that’s just off-center enough to credibly rattle you. On your phone or laptop in a well-lit room or on a bus, though? Forget it. That’s true of most horror movies, of course, but in “Black’s” case, it’s outright binary — the difference between one of the year’s better ghost stories and a complete snoozefest. If you indulge, indulge properly.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (R, 2011, Magnet)
To find out if you should see “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” take this simple test. If you know Tim (Heidecker) and Eric (Wareheim) on a first-name basis and consider yourself an aficionado of their television work, you owe it to yourself to find the least expensive way possible to see this film. “Movie” is indeed a movie. Rather amazingly, it’s a movie with a plot — about two filmmakers who waste a billion of Hollywood’s dollars and have to run a mall and raise a billion new dollars to pay Hollywood back — and some impressive guest stars (among others, John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell, Jeff Goldblum and some cameos best left unspoiled). But the fact that the guest stars feel like guest stars instead of co-stars kind of says everything about how much “Movie” feels more like an elongated and more-coherent-than-normal episode of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” than a feature film. That shouldn’t deter you, of course, because if Tim and Eric’s aggressively bizarre and gross-and-proud-of-it humor do it for you, here’s 90 more minutes of it, with a storyline to boot. As for the rest of you … why are you still reading this? Just run the other way. Because even if Tim and Eric’s kind of comedy piques your curiosity, this — and particularly the midpoint bathroom humor scene that’s absolutely vomit-worthy for anyone who has eaten within 12 hours of seeing it — is no way to make introductions.
Extras: Tim and Eric commentary, deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, image galleries, screensaver, promo videos.

95 Miles to Go (R, 2006, VSC)
Before stardom intervened, Ray Romano and Tom Caltabiano (who co-produced, wrote and otherwise contributed to “Everybody Loves Raymond” throughout its run) toured standup clubs together. Following the conclusion of “Raymond’s” fifth season, the duo hit the road again, and against Romano’s wishes, Caltabiano hired a film student to roll camera as the two drove themselves from stop to stop. Assuming “95 Miles to Go” is the best 79 minutes that footage had to offer, maybe Caltabiano should have honored Romano’s wish. Far from a triumphant return to an old love — and in complete contrast to “Comedian’s” wildly entertaining document of Jerry Seinfeld’s own return to the road — Romano’s and Caltabiano’s standup homecoming feels like a dreary exercise in obligation. Perhaps it’s Romano’s woebegone disposition in general, or perhaps touring just isn’t as magical when everyone already knows who you are and you’ve got a comfortable sitcom job on which to fall back. Either way, it doesn’t look like much fun to be there. And if it isn’t even fun to be there, and if “Miles” has no real insight with which to justify its baffling mood, why share these home movies with your best friends, much less charge the public to fidget through them?
Extras: Romano/Caltabiano video commentary, Caltabiano/composer audio commentary, filmmakers audio commentary, deleted/extended scenes, standup footage, screening Q&A, photo gallery.

— “Route 66: The Complete Series” (NR, 1960, Shout Factory): Yep, finally. Previously kinda sorta available via strange best-of sets and two separate runs of single- or half-season sets that never covered the show’s entire run, “Route 66” finally gets the box set it probably should have received in the first place. The 24-disc set includes all four seasons and 116 episodes, as well as some vintage commercials, a feature about the Corvette and a cast/crew panel from the 1990 William S. Paley Television Festival.

Games 5/22/12: Max Payne 3, Mario Tennis Open, MotoHeroz

Max Payne 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Price: $60

If there’s a story-driven third-person shooter checklist for “Max Payne 3,” rest assured every box is filled. In terms of gunplay and presentation, it’s bloody, beautiful, cinematic and all kinds of refined.

But for those who loved the first two “Max Payne” games because they dared to be weird and were proudly unrefined in exactly the right ways, the polished but mostly disposable “MP3” may ultimately amount to little more than a bloody, beautiful, cinematic and refined bucket of cold water.

As cover-based shooters go, what’s presented here — set mostly in Brazil, with some flashback missions in Max’s old New Jersey haunts — is mostly terrific. Enemies are numerous and relentless. The levels (favelas, two crumbling skyscrapers and seemingly every square inch of an airport, among other places) are magnificently detailed and built to accommodate shootouts that develop vertically as well as horizontally. The guns are diverse and powerful. And while the firefights are stiffly difficult even on normal difficulty, any failings on your part cannot be blamed on the aiming controls, which are precise regardless of whether you elect to use aiming assists or not.

The problem, of course, is that “Max Payne” isn’t supposed to be a cover shooter at all.

To the complete contrary, it was the original “Max Payne” that popularized the virtues of the “Matrix”-esque Bullet Time, which let you briefly slow time, dive right in front of a quintet of enemies and blast every one of them with prodigious precision before hitting the floor and resuming normal speed.

For all we know, Bullet Time was simply an easy fix for a genre that, back in 2001, was still finding its footing with regard to control, perspective and difficulty balance (and was still years away from embracing cover as the cure-all). But who cares? Bullet Time looked awesome and was extremely fun to use, and the first two “Payne” games designed its levels and enemy arrangements expressly to inspire players to run, gun and go absolutely nuts with the mechanic.

“MP3” brings Bullet Time back, and it’s as glorious as ever to harness. But its levels are designed to accommodate cover instead of blazing guns. Enemies stream out at a much higher rate, and the penalty for taking damage from their guns is significantly higher. Tally it up, and diving into the middle of it all becomes a recipe for disaster. You’ll still get your chances to go crazy, but they’re rare, and you’ll either have to accept that or repeatedly die in denial.

Additional signs of lost identity lie elsewhere. Though “MP3’s” story is thoroughly entertaining, it’s a mostly humorless action movie that only fleetingly evokes the wonderful thematic insanity that defined its predecessors. Full cutscenes replace the graphic novel motif, and while (again) they look and sound terrific, they (again) do so at the expense of the series’ cherished identity.

(Max, to his credit, still mutters film noir-isms to himself between shootouts, so all is not lost. While his world has become less interesting, he’s still the best tragic hero in the business.)

Interestingly, the place “MP3” most closely plays like traditional “Max Payne” is in the one frontier — multiplayer (online, 16 players) — that’s wholly new to the series.

Multiplayer offers plenty to like in terms of match types (solo/team deathmatch, a story-driven Gang Wars mode, a 2-on-14 co-op/competitive survival mode) and amenities (upgradable characters/loadouts, mini-achievements, the ability to form crews with friends).

But while the multiplayer maps are built for cover as well, having teammates and fewer enemies creates boundless opportunity to run and gun with abandon.

You can even activate Bullet Time (albeit sparingly, and only after accruing it through kills and assists). Doing so doesn’t necessarily affect other players’ ability to continue playing at normal speed, but anyone whose line of sight crosses with a slowed-down player will slow down as well. The clever implementation allows Bullet Time to be as effective and fun as ever without disrupting other players who are fighting their own battles elsewhere on the map.


Mario Tennis Open
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Camelot/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

At its core and where it counts most, “Mario Tennis Open” has a whole lot in common with the preceding six games that had some variation of “Mario Tennis” in their titles, and for many, that’s probably all that matters. In terms of the finer gameplay details — control responsiveness, A.I. competency and the balance struck between pure tennis and the fantastical nature of the Super Mario universe — it’s the most polished game of tennis Nintendo has published since the Nintendo 64 got its version 12 years ago.

Or rather, it will be once you go into the options screen, select “Gyro Sensor” and, perhaps regretfully, disable it.

Along with the overdue addition of online play, “Open’s” neatest new trick might be the ability to dynamically change the camera angle by holding the 3DS differently. Holding the 3DS flat and looking down at it produces an overhead view of the court, while holding it upward and looking forward toward the screen switches, appropriately, to a behind-the-back perspective.

Problem is, “Open” degenerates into a mess when the behind-the-back view is active. The gyroscope allows you to tilt the 3DS to tweak the camera’s horizontal angle, but it also handles shot aim (which the circle pad capably handles by itself in the top-down view). The circle pad can still be used to control your player’s position on the court, but whenever you aren’t using it, the game automatically moves your player for you.

Compared to the top-down view’s classically simple controls, the weird mix of motion, auto and traditional controls is a clumsy mess. And because “Open’s” flimsy options screen makes the dynamic perspective a package deal with all those control conditions, you might be best off disabling the whole thing completely. There’s no way to have complete control while dynamic camera control is active.

Perhaps fortunately (though not really), “Open’s” use of stereoscopic 3D is so tepid during gameplay that you’re not missing much by disabling the feature. The 3D pops beautifully during menus and replays, so it’s clearly a conscious choice, but it’s a puzzling one given the obvious applications for 3D in a game where a ball flies at you at a fast speed.

The nullification of those features leaves us, for better or worse, in pretty much in the same place “Mario Tennis” always has been.

On the plus side, that means “Open” likely gives you what you came for in terms of how it plays. It’s polished per usual, and while the court designs are extremely festive, the emphasis on different shot types and court control makes this a sports game first and everything else second.

At the same time, It’s a shame “Open” sees no need to introduce new characters (besides your Mii) to a small roster that’s stagnated for a decade despite there being no shortage of characters in Mario’s universe. The modes are similarly thin, with the same old tournament cups instead of a season mode or the role-playing features that typically reside in Nintendo’s portable tennis games. The small handful of minigames is nice — a mode that lets you play World 1-1 of “Super Mario Bros.” by hitting enemies with tennis balls is especially clever — but their novelty is fleeting.

Per usual, “Open” shines brightest as a multiplayer game, and while the online offerings aren’t exhaustive, they provide some valuable versatility to the game’s biggest selling point.

Via either local single-card wireless or online, “Open” supports multiple combinations of four-player co-op/competitive/singles/doubles tennis among friends. Those with a competitive streak, meanwhile, can play random opponents online and accrue performance-based points that contribute to their ranking on a monthly regional leaderboard. The quality of play online will ultimately come down to the community, but “Open” does its part: Matches are low on lag, and finding opponents is fast and easy.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: RedLynx/Ubisoft
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

Maybe three years ago, the iOS debut of “MotoHeroz” — an off-road racing/stunt-driving game from the same studio behind “Trials HD” — would be nothing but good news. “MotoHeroz” operates almost identically to “Trials,” providing a large array of short stunt courses and tasking players with completing them either under a par time or (in the case of non-race events) over a par score. Because you’re driving a four-wheeled vehicle instead of a motorbike, “MotoHeroz” is a little more forgiving with regard to its physics — but only a little, and not so much that mastering those physics won’t spell the difference between getting a three-star score and coming away empty. Unfortunately, a fully-upgraded vehicle proves more important to your success than even your skill, to the point where achieving two- and three-star results isn’t necessarily even possible until you upgrade each level pack’s corresponding vehicle. You can, of course, accomplish this by replaying courses ad nauseam while you gradually accumulate the in-game currency needed to slowly upgrade each vehicle. Or you can watch some video ads and earn a handful of coins that way. Or, for the price of $4 per vehicle (that’s $32 for all eight vehicles), you can fully upgrade and cruise to a three-star score. And if you want the option to just drop $5 up front and play “MotoHeroz” like you would a fun, skill-based game instead of something that nickels and dimes your time and money and sabotages its own gameplay merits in the process? Sorry. “MotoHeroz,” the latest victim of the absolutely joyless freemium model, won’t allow it.

DVD/Blu-ray 5/15/12: The Grey, Chronicle, Albert Nobbs, Hell on Wheels S1, Stony Island

The Grey (R, 2012, Universal)
As a hunter tasked with protecting Alaskan oil drillers from the wolves that patrol their workspace, Ottway (Liam Neeson) knows as much about how a wolf lives as how one dies. And when a plane carrying Ottway and dozens of oil drillers crashes deep in the Alaskan wilderness — leaving seven survivors potentially dead to rights in the midst of a wolves’ den — his knowledge could scarcely ask for a better test. That’s the conceit of “The Grey,” and from high above, it’s every bit the lean, brutal survival movie you probably expect it to be. But before Ottway even boards the plane, “The Grey” offers him up as more than some grizzled wolf hunter who does what he does just because. To the contrary, he’s a badly tormented romantic who craves his old life and dreams relentlessly of resting in his former wife’s arms, and his place on this plane represents far more than simple circumstance. There’s more where that came from, too, and not simply from Ottway. Rather than use its survivors as nothing more than sounding boards and soulless pawns in the wolf den food chain, “The Grey” treats them as honest-to-goodness characters who ended up drilling for oil in no man’s land for honest-to-goodness reasons of their own. Brutality and contemplation make surprisingly good bedfellows — and, really, of course they do. Why root for survivalists if we don’t know why they want so badly to live? Most movies never say. This one does, and often brilliantly. Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Nonso Anozie, among others, also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes.

Chronicle (PG-13, 2012, Fox)
High school nobody Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has a difficult home life and is unpopular enough that only his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) qualifies as something of a friend. Yet none of this discourages him from lugging around an old camcorder and filming his daily life. And when he finally stumbles onto something worth filming — an odd artifact buried beneath a random suburban Seattle yard that grants superhero-esque powers to Andrew, Matt and the popular guy (Michael B. Jordan as Steve) who egged them into filming the weird hole he found outside a house party — it’s a good thing he kept the camera rolling. “Chronicle” takes two suddenly oversaturated sub-genres — mock found footage and the everyman superhero — and merges them into one. If you listen to conventional wisdom, that should add up to a movie that’s tired, uninspired and/or a complete me-too mess. But what happens instead is a best-case scenario for both gimmicks and a mess of a whole different sort. Without spoiling too many specifics, “Chronicle” designs a pretty credible account of what might happen when three high schoolers with three different levels of popularity stumble into a pandora’s box of awesome abilities. There’s wonder and the wide-eyed imagining of untold possibilities and adventures. But there’s also mischief to make and pretty girls to impress. And when all these powerful factors add up so quickly, angst inevitably creeps in. The occasional hiccup aside, “Chronicle” makes terrific use of its time, going from zero to crazy without looking rushed getting there. Instead of using two trendy concepts to wear out its welcome, it takes them places they should have been going all along.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Albert Nobbs (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
For years, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) has quietly served court as a waiter at a Dublin hotel while slowly piecing enough money together to open his own tobacco shop. And for far longer than that, he’s hidden a secret — that he’s a she in disguise, and thus unfit in the eyes of her 19th century peers to hold her job, much less own a business — from everyone. When new fellow employee Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) stumbles into her secret, he promises to keep it quiet, but as often happens when one domino falls, it hits another on the way down. “Albert Nobbs” owes a debt of its ensuing bedlam to a supporting cast (Aaron Johnson, Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins) whose stories have more of a circumstantial than direct effect on Albert’s story, and one could certainly argue this is a product of the movie not completely knowing what to do with its namesake once the big secret is out. Those who develop that suspicion early likely won’t ever shake it, and those fears might even worsen once Albert’s fate comes into view. But even as those clouds form, “Nobbs” spends just enough magic on Hubert’s and Albert’s unlikely friendship to allow these scenes to carry everything else. The movie would have done itself a favor by focusing harder on the relationship between the cripplingly awkward Nobbs and the person who accidentally becomes the most important person in his/her life, but some is better than none.
Extras: Close/director commentary, deleted scenes.

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
His army may have been on the losing end of the Civil War, but Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) isn’t finished fighting just yet. Specifically, he’s bent on smoking out and serving a plate of payback to the Union soldiers who murdered his wife, and if he has to insert himself in the traveling city of Northerners who are racing to complete construction of a transcontinental railroad, so be it. Naturally, “Hell on Wheels” being a television series whose second season is en route, Cullen’s revenge is going to take some time. And if you want to be around to witness its presumably eventual payoff, you’d best pack some patience for the ride. More than a story about Cullen’s pending revenge, “Hell on Wheels” is a story about Cullen. But more than a story about Cullen, “Wheels” is a story about his new roving neighborhood — a hotbed of soldiers, wanderers, criminals, prostitutes, former slaves, greedy tycoons and Native Americans where, in the shadow of the war, tensions very obviously run high. “Wheels” milks the scene for all it’s worth in the service of character studying, and it takes its painstakingly sweet time doing so. There’s no shame in that approach, and “Wheels” has some rocky growing pains early on, the first season’s second half finds a better balance between jawing that serves the big picture and jawing that only functions as in-the-moment posturing and pretense. Colm Meaney, Dominique McElligott, Common, Tom Noonan and Eddie Spears, among others, also star.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus 10 Inside the Episode features, seven character features and nine other behind-the-scenes features.

Stony Island (PG, 1978, Cinema Libre)
As much as it was a movie in 1978, “Stony Island” is a time capsule today — of the era’s music, of the city of Chicago in the wake of the first Mayor Daley’s death, and of independent filmmaking when making independent films was far more financially intimidating than it is today. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it on these terms, either. “Island” — the first film from Andrew Davis, who later would direct “The Fugitive” and “The Guardian,” among others — is a meandering story about a handful of musicians (Richie Davis, Edward Stoney Robinson, Gene Daddy G Barge) who defy conventional wisdom and form a most unlikely funk supergroup. The acting isn’t always top flight, the story rambles considerably from start to finish, and the film is rife with “you probably had to be there” references to the city, sound and era. That’s one way to describe it. Here’s another: “Island” paints a vibrantly grimy picture of grassroots musicianship and filmmaking (from behind the camera as well as in front of it), and the story plays a willing second fiddle to the sound and scene that provide its pulse. As much time is spent with the musicians simply making music as it is on storytelling and other things movies typically do. That’s most likely unacceptable 99 percent of the time, but this movie, rediscovered this year in this way, makes a fine exception. Dennis Franz also stars.
Extras: Alternate ending, behind-the-scenes feature.

Games 5/15/12: Starhawk, Prototype 2, Junk Jack

For: Playstation 3
From: LightBox Interactive/SCE Santa Monica/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Taking the entirety of 2007’s “Warhawk” and launching it into space probably would have been enough to make “Starhawk” a perfectly fun sequel. But why settle for one new frontier if you can handle a handful?

For starters, “Starhawk” brings the series — known then and now for its ambitious 32-player online battles — into the single-player campaign space. And diametrically unlike “Battlefield 3’s” dreadful attempt to do the same last year, it doesn’t betray its own gameplay sensibilities to tell a story.

That point becomes quickly apparent, too. Following a brief cinematic introduction, “Starhawk” sets you loose in a wide-open frontier that’s half deep space and half wild west. Within 15 or so minutes, you’ll experience samplings of the on-foot action (loose run-and-gun third-person shooting), the vehicular controls and the impressive scope of the missions and maps.

You’ll also get a small taste of the game’s most pleasantly surprising new addition.

Along with the action on the ground and (eventually) in the air, “Starhawk” offers a modest but satisfying layer of real-time strategy via base-building. Provided you have the resources, you can construct everything from turrets and blockades to buildings that produce additional weapons, allied soldiers and vehicles.

“Starhawk” builds this layer in exactly the right way, too. What you build and where you place it is no trivial matter, but actually doing so is as quick and easy as tapping a few buttons and returning to the action (which continues unabated while you build). The structures form almost instantly, literally dropping from the sky and assembling in seconds.

(The surprisingly fun story — itself, like its surroundings, a mix of dark sci-fi and hokey western — explains why stuff drops in this way, but even if you don’t care, the process is visually awesome.)

Seamlessness combines with scale to produce “Starhawk’s” most admirable calling card, and its large, multi-layered environments accommodate it beautifully. Anytime you want to fight in close quarters on the ground, you can. Anytime you want to hop into a massive mech and stomp on those suddenly-tiny same enemies, you can. And if you want to soar into space and dogfight enemy aircraft circling above, a single button press turns that mech into a hawk, and off you go. All the while, whether you’re airborne or grounded, the base-building features stand at the ready.

(If you played “Warhawk” and are wondering, “Starhawk’s” flight controls are considerably more traditional and, consequently, much easier to grasp.)

Though the campaign never unfairly exploits it, its inevitable shortcoming is obvious: If you want something done — in the air, on the ground and as it relates to base construction — you have to do it yourself. Your A.I. allies are only so useful, so be prepared to frequently be in three places at once.

That’s less of a problem in the game’s four-player splitscreen/online survival mode, where you share responsibilities with friends while withstanding as many waves of enemies as you can stave off.

But it’s no problem whatsoever in “Starhawk’s” 16-on-16 competitive multiplayer, which remains the series’ jewel.

Everything mentioned previously about scope, seamlessness and freedom applies to “Starhawk’s” multiplayer matches, and you’re similarly free to engage in all facets of the battle as you please.

But having 15 teammates at your back affords you the freedom to avoid the roles you don’t enjoy and even dive into a specialty. If you’re weak on the ground, you can patrol the skies exclusively, and if you’d rather avoid combat entirely, you can contribute (and accrue experience points) just as effectively by keeping your team’s base fortified. Human opposition and intelligence makes “Starhawk’s” multiplayer arena far more imposing than its campaign, but there’s no more gratifying facet of the game than 16 players coordinating their talents in the service of a dominant victory.


Prototype 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Radical Entertainment/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $60

From its core out to the fringes, “Prototype 2” has a lot — arguably too much — in common with “Prototype.”

But the one significant change — outside of a new main character, and more on that in a bit — is a good one. This time, all that’s good and fun about “Prototype 2” isn’t completely torn down by the horrifying A.I. and difficulty balancing meltdowns that made its predecessor one of 2009’s most obnoxious games.

Conceptually, it’s business as usual. As James Heller, you’re still taking on both military and mutant forces. And despite filling a new set of shoes, you’re still a superpowered one-man army who can jump 50 feet per bound, sprint up the side of a New York City skyscraper, throw a car like a baseball and fully consume other people to shapeshift into them and acquire their memories and abilities.

This time, you actually get to enjoy these and other abilities. Raising the ire of a single mutant or soldier won’t result in insane waves of reinforcements instantly appearing in such thick numbers that your only recourse is to react and eventually just flee. Enemies still attack in packs, but they’re manageable enough that you can creatively take on a wave or two without a dozen other enemies constantly running interference at the slightest hint of player proactivity.

If anything, “Prototype 2” is too polite. Countering and evading enemy attacks is extremely easy even when outnumbered, and you’ll quickly gain access to some money moves that let you formulate devastating attacks from safe distances without fear of penalty if you miss. Recovering significant chunks of health on cue is as easy as dodging and countering, and if you take on some side missions and tack on the strength and well-being upgrades they pay out upon completion, you can inhale a battalion’s worth of military firepower without even paying that health bar any mind.

The kid gloves hold on for dear life during “Prototype 2’s” stealth segments, which task you with consuming enemies and posing as them to infiltrate restricted areas and shapeshift all the way up the food chain.

In the annals of stealth game enemies, none may be more gullible than this lot. Slowly clearing out a room by literally swallowing people who are standing two feet behind other people raises no alarm. Running up the side of a building and performing other superhuman feats may raise an eyebrow, but as long as you walk away casually, they’ll just shrug and dismiss it. In the rare instance you attempt to swallow a live person in his allies’ unbelievably dim line of sight, the game flashes an alert letting you know as much, and the action is canceled. And the guy whom you just grabbed and nearly swallowed before swiftly recanting the move? He thinks nothing of it. Carry on.

Still, if the difficulty balancing had to lean in one direction, this is preferable by far. Heller’s repertoire is fun to unleash, and “Prototype 2” lets you do exactly that in a big world that’s packed nicely with elective missions to complement the main storyline.

The only real step backward is Heller himself. “Prototype 2’s” storyline is one centered around revenge, and as Heller, you’re actually hunting the first game’s protagonist, whose actions in the first game indirectly resulted in the death of your wife and child.

But noble cause or not, Heller is just wretchedly unlikable — an f-bombing meathead whose character development is about as nuanced as the game’s stealth detection systems. That goes as well for writing in general: It isn’t so bad that you want to skip the cutscenes entirely, but it’s grating enough to turn on subtitles, mute the sound and play some music for a much more tolerable atmosphere.


Junk Jack
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Pixbits
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

If the vast, empty, open-world canvases of “Minecraft” are imposing enough to drown out the appeal of building anything you want, some good news: Another happy medium has arrived. “Junk Jack’s” conceit comes straight out of “Minecraft’s” playbook: As the titular character, the game world is your oyster, and you can mine its every resource — trees, rocks, the ground itself and dangerous wildlife, among other elements — and turn them into a new world in which to survive and eventually prosper. Instead of a terrifying 3D world that goes on forever, though, “Jack” bakes this conceit into a 2D sidescroller with a vibrant (and friendly) pixelated graphical presentation. And instead of shoddy documentation, the game arranges a wealth of beginner tips (and even a few crafting recipes) inside a terrific help interface that’s always handy but never in the way. Just don’t let the friendly face fool you. “Jack” is accessible, but its building tree — wherein resources become tools and tools become platforms for creating everything from gardens to machinery and more — runs surprisingly deep. And though its world is smaller than “Minecraft’s” endless frontier, it’s plenty big (and dangerous) enough to accommodate whatever ambition you bring to it.

DVD/Blu-ray 5/1/12: Suits S1, W.E., New Year's Eve, Haywire, Mimic: 3 Film Set

Suits: Season One (NR, 2011, USA/Universal)
If you rage against the notion of needing an overpriced degree to qualify for a job you know you could do well, you just might grow to idolize Mike (Patrick J. Adams), who never went to law school but uses his incredible photographic memory and impressive charisma to land a job as an attorney at a powerful law firm anyway. The catch is that only two people — his maddeningly unreliable best friend (Tom Lipinski) and the guy (Gabriel Macht) who hired him against his better judgment — know his secret. The potential bigger catch is firm bigwig Louis (Rick Hoffman), who doesn’t know but has his suspicions and isn’t afraid to use his magnificent gift of being a jerk to try and catch Mike in a lie. Like most USA Network shows, “Suits” puts an amusing but smart spin on the typically dreary network television procedural. Mike’s particular strength (that memory) and weakness (the whole “not actually a lawyer” thing) gives a unique edge to the otherwise familiar case-of-the-week format, and a torrent of sharp writing contributes democratically to the show’s dramatic and comedic sides. Give a hat tip to Hoffman as well for “Suits'” bitterly funny side: He’s made a career out of playing despicably brilliant scumbags, and he’s on fire in this role. Meghan Markle also stars.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus commentary, an alternate premiere episode, deleted scenes and bloopers.

W.E. (R, 2011, Anchor Bay)
It is through “W.E.” that we meet Wally (Abbie Cornish), a lonely woman whose marriage to William (Richard Coyle) is buckling under the pressure of attempted child conception gone miserably cold. And it is through Wally that we meet Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) — an American woman so loved, King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) surrendered his throne to be with her. Wally’s restlessness brings her daily to an exhibition for an upcoming auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate, where her study of Simpson’s and Edward’s seemingly perfect romance sends her into a daydreaming tailspin while an auction house security guard (Oscar Isaac) watches over her and quietly entertains her descents. “W.E.” presents this quite literally, dividing its time between Wally’s present existence in 1998 and a creatively liberated period piece about Edward’s surrender as told from Simpson’s vantage. Unfortunately, “W.E.” also quite literally looks like a movie forced to compromise its time instead of weave two stories into one. Wally’s misery is spectacularly on the nose, and her descents into the Simpson/Edward fantasy become increasingly harder to bear when so little changes when we’re back with her. Meanwhile, with half the stage reserved for 1998, Simpson’s story stalls and stammers, and its big revelation for Wally — that things weren’t as rosy as the legend first implied — is as captain obvious as twists get. “W.E.” never outright collapses on its premise, and when it plays fast and loose with it — dropping a Sex Pistols song into one of Simpson’s scenes, for instance, or allowing the two women to interact — it’s actually pretty fun. Unfortunately, inspired moments like those are the overwhelming exception to a mostly dreary rule.
Extra: Making-of feature.

New Year’s Eve (PG-13, 2011, Warner Bros.)
As the generic name and positively monstrous cast very forcefully implies, “New Year’s Eve” is a story about New Year’s Eve. More specifically, it’s a collection of a dozen or so fables, loosely connected but all set in the same place (Manhattan) and time (see title). The themes — mostly centered around regrets over choices previously made — should ring familiar, and because “Eve” has to divide itself among so many stories, their treatments are mostly predictable as well. One wonders what kind of movie this could have been had it focused on one person — say, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), who attempts to repair a life full of regret by completing a year’s worth of resolutions in one day — and cut a whole lot deeper than it’s allowed to do here. With that said, what we get is pretty consistently pleasant even at its most trite. (One contemptible storyline, about expectant parents competing to have their baby as close to midnight as possible in order to collect $25,000, stands out as the lone exception.) A few stories touch a genuine chord in spite of their tug-heartstrings-by-numbers makeup, and some nice surprises materialize when stories cross paths during the last act. That isn’t enough to elevate “Eve” beyond what you mostly expect it to be (or, tangentially, make its May release make any sense whatsoever), but in the kingdom of comfortable comedies, it’ll do. Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher, Josh Duhamel and Hilary Swank, among others, also star.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Haywire (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
It isn’t surprising that mixed martial arts star Gina Carano has an incomprehensible action movie star vehicle, because the glut of movies starring MMA fighters means it was inevitable Carano would receive an incomprehensible action movie star vehicle. What is a little surprising is the clout behind the camera (Steven Soderbergh directs) and the glut of very recognizable acting talent (Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton) who play second fiddle to Carano. The pieces are in place to make “Haywire” the “Citizen Kane” of MMA star vehicles, and an attempt is made to give Carano a story — about a black ops agent (Carano) seeking payback after a mission goes nearly fatally haywire following a mole’s attempted sabotage — that aspires to be an actual story. But even with that cast and that effort, “Haywire” ultimately exists for no other reason than for its star to beat the snot out of her considerably more famous co-stars. “Haywire’s” storytelling isn’t terrible, but it’s woefully ill-equipped to thrill on its own. Additionally, and regardless of whether Carano simply can’t cut it as an actor or no one trusted her enough to pull it off, her character is charismatic dead weight when she isn’t kicking someone’s face in. There’s enough face-kicking to make “Haywire” enjoyable if that’s why you’re here, but if the cast has your expectations raised, best to check them now.
Extras: Two behind-the-scenes features.

Mimic: 3 Film Set (R/NR, 1997-2003, Lions Gate)
Officially, “Mimic: 3 Film Set” serves a purpose as the Blu-ray debuts for “Mimic 2” and “Mimic 3: Sentinel,” which join “Mimic: The Director’s Cut” (which itself debuted last year) to comprise this three-film set. Unofficially … did you even know there were three “Mimic” movies? Unless you adored the Guillermo del Toro-directed original, you may have had no reason to. Both “Mimic 2” and “Sentinel” were straight-to-video sequels that arrived without the original film’s cast (Mira Sorvino, Josh Brolin, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton) and brain trust at the helm, and while “Mimic 3’s” Hitchcockian presentation makes it a pleasantly fun surprise to watch, “Mimic 2’s” rehashing of the first movie’s plot probably neutered whatever interest most had in the series’ continuation. Then again, one could make an argument for the sequel’s low-rent interpretation of the first movie’s events. Maybe that one is you. If you’re curious — about where “Mimic’s” mythology went, or simply what a straight-to-video sequel of a straight-to-video sequel looks like — this set has answers.
Extras: Director commentaries for “Mimic” and “Sentinel,” del Toro prologue for “Mimic,” deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features, cast audition footage, bloopers, storyboards.

Games 5/1/12: Botanicula, The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day

For: PC/Mac
From: Amanita Design
ESRB Rating: Not Rated
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Every sight, song and expressive peep is a treat to see, hear, witness and bring to life in “Botanicula,” and for a game that caters to curiosity fulfillment above all else, there’s no higher praise.

Skeletally, “Botanicula” is a point-and-click adventure like any other. Completing each of the six chapters entails a sequence of cause-and-effect puzzle-solving where solving smaller riddles rewards you with the means and access needed to solve the larger surrounding puzzle.

But where most adventure games rely heavily on dialogue, “Botanicula’s” story — in which five tree creature friends venture to save a living seed from their home tree after parasites descend on it — has exactly none. Our band of heroes communicates solely though squeals of delight and yelps of despair, and whenever other characters or the game itself want to illustrate a point, they literally do so with illustrations and symbols.

The spartan (and adorable) method of communication works perfectly in concert with “Botanicula’s” ambient soundtrack and visual design, in which handmade cutout pieces cheerfully animate to life in front of comparably handcrafted backdrops. And when all those elements come together, the world they create is, logically as well as aesthetically, one of a kind.

Though its riddles can be tricky, particularly within the back half’s more elaborate levels, “Botanicula” is designed in such a way that a natural curiosity proves as handy as any strain of problem-solving prowess you might have. Nothing in your life likely has prepared you to beat a smug peanut at a beatle race in order to trick him into giving up his bicycle helmet so you can give it to another creature before launching that creature out of a circus cannon. But if you’re curious enough to explore everything that looks like it might be anything, “Botanicula” eventually reveals the odd but oddly sensible logic needed to get from one side of that problem to the other. The puzzles are bizarre in exactly the right way — strange enough to make you wonder what weird surprise lurks next, abstract enough not to hold your hand through the discovery process, but never nearly so opaque as to frustrate or grind that discovery process to a halt.

And what a process that becomes. Fun though unraveling “Botanicula’s” mysterious logic most definitely is, it’s the moments where one stops, looks and listens that almost certainly will endure. “Botanicula” offers a mostly optional secondary challenge in the form of collectible creature cards, giving players a new card every time they fully explore the ways and means of a creature in the game’s wonderfully imaginative ecosystem. The cards themselves aren’t worth anything unless you’re a completionist and achievement junkie. But the things you’ll see and hear en route to receiving them are every bit as smile-inducing as the surprises you’ll uncover along “Botanicula’s” main road.


The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), PC/Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $5 for the first episode, $20-25 for a five-episode season pass (PS3/PC/Mac)

Telltale Games coasted into a rut with “Back to the Future,” and its stab at something different with “Jurassic Park” was the kind of disaster that shakes your faith in a studio. So the arrival of “The Walking Dead’s” first episode — which finds Telltale again breaking away from formula but subsequently breaking ground instead of confidence — couldn’t be timelier. Set concurrently with the events of the “TWD” television show, “A New Day” tells the story of brand-new character Lee Everett, who has a troubling secret to keep as well as a child to protect from the zombie horde. Safeguarding the latter (and yourself) means engaging in brief but tense action sequences where quick reflexes and the ability to make tough decisions quickly will serve you well. But it’s the guarding of that secret that really brings Lee’s story alive. The meat of “Day’s” gameplay consists of dialogue with other survivors, but instead of asking questions and gathering information, you’re holding answers, playing mental chess and deciding — quickly and without do-overs — whom to trust whom to deceive. Your choices in conversation, along with some other decisions you must make with similar haste and confidence, play heavily into how “Day” concludes, and if the teases for the second episode are any indication, the ramifications of this episode will only intensify as the five-episode series marches ahead.