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from the Raleigh News & Observer

The video game genre known as survival horror plays by a certain set of rules. These games generate thrills through atmosphere and tension rather than straight-up action, and limited resources give the player a sense of desperation. Running and hiding is often a better option than standing and fighting.

“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” is a nice example of survival horror done right, and by “nice” I mean “utterly terrifying.” Horror fans who like to scare themselves silly – whether by game, movie or book – will appreciate the experience that “RE7” provides. When executed properly (heh), survival horror games are unlike any other storytelling mode.

Returning players will already be familiar with the “Resident Evil” vibe – creeping horror punctuated with sudden scares by nightmare beasties. As the title of the new game suggest, the series also plays with our deep biological fears of infection and contamination. “RE” specializes in squirm-inducing environments designed to punch you right in the brain stem.

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DVD Holiday Gift Guide:

December 26, 2011

originally published at NPR.org

When it comes to holiday gift giving, I’m a traditionalist. I like to think carefully of each person on my list, consider their dispositions and passions, then give them a ginormous DVD box set that will keep them on the couch for the next several months.

This is just good policy with my family and circle of friends. The longer I can keep them off the streets and out of trouble, the happier we all are.

Perhaps you’d like to do the same — and there’s still time if you get your ordering and shopping underway. Here’s a list of some of the best DVD/Blu-ray titles and box sets making the rounds this holiday season, with suggestions on matching each with that certain someone on your list. The prices listed are approximate retail prices, but you can usually find them cheaper with a little online shopping.

For Your Insufferable Uncle, The Rabid Yankees Fan

Yankeeography, the box set.

A&E Networks Home Entertainment

Generally speaking, hardcore Yankees fans are a troublesome lot, given to statistical pronouncements and sepia-toned monologues. Still, we must respect their passion, and Yankeeography: Pinstripe Legends (DVD/$100) is a good way to keep them quiet this off-season. The 16 discs compile 37 episodes from the YES Network TV series, each devoted to a revered Yankee. You’ve got your Gehrigs, your Berras, your Stengels, your DiMaggios. Plus eight additional documentaries on various aspects of the team’s history, and a 32-page collector’s booklet.

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originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in trouble. Dozens of papers across the U.S. have folded in the face of rising distribution costs, declining ad revenue and competition from digital sources.

“Page One: Inside the New York Times” is a fascinating documentary that roots into the challenges the industry faces, by focusing on America’s flagship newspaper, The New York Times.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk or media nerd to enjoy “Page One” – but it helps. From the first frame, director Andrew Rossi dives into the deep end of the pool, trusting that his audience is sophisticated enough to keep up.

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originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Well, it’s official. Ed Helms is a movie star. And he can thank his director for that.

The former “Daily Show” correspondent and veteran ensemble player (“The Hangover,” “The Office”) headlines “Cedar Rapids,” the year’s first genuine sleeper comedy hit. As it turns out, “Cedar Rapids” was directed by Miguel Arteta, author of last year’s sleeper comedy hit, the Michael Cera freakout “Youth in Revolt.”

This is particularly relevant, because the success of “Cedar Rapids” comes as much from Arteta’s sure-handed direction as it does with Helms’ leading performance.

It goes like this: Small town insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) is recruited to attend the industry’s regional conference in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim, who has never left his hometown and is dating his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), is overjoyed but ill-prepared. If naivete were potato chips, Tim would be Frito-Lay.

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Pick of the Week

Inside Job

Documentary; rated PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A brilliantly assembled, high-energy crash course in the causes and effects of the recent global financial crisis.

The Lowdown: Enraging and fascinating, “Inside Job” won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and is the latest in an unprecedented string of must-see docs over the last couple of years.

Directed by renaissance man Charles Ferguson – author, scholar, tech mogul and filmmaker – “Inside Job” is a smartly executed frontal assault on an insanely complex topic. Deploying all the tricks of the documentary film trade, Ferguson drills into the root causes of the Great Recession with admirable clarity.

His conclusion? The global financial crisis is a direct result of 30 years of gradual deregulation of the financial services industry, which spawned aggressive corruption on Wall Street and pretty much every other adjacent institution. Simply put, the crisis was precipitated by institutional and individual acts of criminal fraud. It was entirely avoidable, too, the film insists. Unfortunately, our government watchdogs were at best negligent, and at worst complicit.

Interviews with dozens of industry insiders and public officials are interspersed with textual and graphical elements that effectively parse all the complex jargon. Narrator Matt Damon keeps it all flowing, and reportedly was actively involved in shaping the film’s narrative structure.

Like all docs, of course, “Inside Job” has a deliberate point of view and a definite agenda. The film regularly indulges in righteous indignation, but that’s an indulgence we’re all entitled to, I think. As Ferguson pointed out in his Oscars acceptance speech, “Three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail. And that’s wrong,”

The Extras: Commentary track by Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs; a short making-of doc; some deleted scenes – Blu-ray adds another hour of outtakes

The Bottom Line: “Inside Job” won the documentary Oscar for a reason – this wasn’t the most artful doc of the year, but it was surely the most important.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Get ready for more great docs – Durham’s Full Frame documentary film festival is coming up April 14-17. Scheduling will be announced next week – check fullframefest.org for details.

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Pick of the Week

127 Hours

Thriller-drama; rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Trapped by a falling boulder, rock climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) survives for five days – recording his ordeal on a handheld camera and eventually using a dull knife to amputate his own arm.

The Lowdown: The film for which the term “harrowing” was apparently invented, “127 Hours” is hard on the stomach, for obvious reasons. But director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) works some weird miracles here in terms of filmmaking creativity.

As Aron’s mental and physical condition deteriorates, Boyle departs from the straight narrative with sequences of Aron’s hallucinations and dreams of family and friends. The movie then enters a kind of timeless space, and Franco delivers a performance that seems to tap into some universal life force. “There is no force more powerful than the will to live,” the film’s tagline informs us. Franco – robbed of the Best Actor Oscar last week, IMHO – will make you believe.

The Extras: A must-listen commentary track with director Boyle; deleted scenes; Blu-ray adds two mini-docs on Franco and Boyle’s collaboration and the real-life details of Ralston’s ordeal

The Bottom Line: Most assuredly one of last year’s best films, “127 Hours” is a marvel of storytelling verve.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Careful with that amputation scene – several audience members feinted straight away during the film’s theatrical release.

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Pick of the Week

Megamind

Animated comedy; rated PG for action and some language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Yet another animated send-up of comic book heroes and villains, “Megamind” brings the funny for both kids and adults.

The Lowdown: For my kids’ entertainment dollar – and I spend quite a lot of them – “Megamind” was the best animated comedy of last year, just ahead of “How To Train Your Dragon.” Similar in premise to the second runner-up, “Despicable Me,” “Megamind” concerns the fate of a cartoon supervillain turned hero.

Evil genius Megamind, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the archnemesis of Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and the designated bad guy of Metro City. But when Megamind finally vanquishes his foe, he discovers that being a supervillain is no fun unless you have a superhero to plot against.

Ferrell and Tina Fey, as TV reporter and perpetual kidnapping victim Roxanne Ritchie, provide a running comedic banter that keeps the movie genuinely funny for adults. As the extras reveal, Fey and Ferrell recorded and improvised their scenes together, which almost never happens in voiceover work. Meanwhile, the ace animation team provides lively action scenes and elaborate head bonks for the shorter set.

Extras: The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack features filmmaker’s commentary track; about a dozen interactive mini-docs, picture-in-picture elements and interviews; a trivia track; deleted scenes and the all-new animated short “The Button of Doom.”

The Bottom Line: To some degree, all animated comedies aim to appeal to kids and parents both; “Megamind” manages to play to each crowd surprisingly well.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Freeze-framing reveals that Megamind’s Dehydration gun has several other settings, including Demoralize, Deregulate and Decoupage.

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