Video Verdict: New DVDs for Dec. 23

Jason Statham gets ready to ride in "Death Race."

Jason Statham gets ready to ride in "Death Race."

A brainless action film, a girl-power drama, an intimate documentary and two offbeat comedies. In other words, this week’s DVD crop has something for all types.


Death Race
3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong violence and language
Universal Studios
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of “Death Race 2000” isn’t inventive or smart, but it holds up as a pure action film.

It’s set in a near future when all U.S. prisons are run by private corporations. One such facility has established a wildly popular, gladiator-style event in which convicts race in cars outfitted with offensive and defensive weapons. The point is to cross the finish line first, but killing opposing racers is both legal and encouraged.

The contest takes a turn when wrongly imprisoned former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) joins in with a new driving style and unbridled animosity toward the prison warden (Joan Allen).

The story is predictable and the characters stereotypical, but this isn’t the sort of film that relies on plot. Instead we get over-the-top action sequences filled with machine gun fire and explosions, and Anderson does a fine job with the staging and pacing.

Statham is a likable performer who excels in action roles and Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane deliver enjoyable supporting performances. That makes “Death Race” the perfect movie for viewers who want to turn off their brains and go along for the ride.

DVD extras include an unrated cut of the film, several making-of features and an audio commentary with Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt.

 
Burn After Reading
3 stars
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence
Universal Studios
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen decided to follow their dramatic best picture winner, “No Country for Old Men,” with something completely different. While “No Country” was bleak and uncompromising, “Burn After Reading” is a sprightly comedy built on goofy characters and great acting.

Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand lead the way as Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke, Washington, D.C., gym employees who discover a disc filled with financial data and a former CIA analyst’s (John Malkovich) memoirs. The information is worthless, but the daft pair is convinced they’ve stumbled onto sensitive intelligence, so they mount an ill-conceived blackmail scheme.

Soon, Linda and Chad are careening down a bizarre path involving the CIA, the Russians and a sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney). The story is purposefully silly, but the plotting isn’t as important as the offbeat characters who are fleshed out beautifully by the cast.

Moviegoers who prefer the Coens’ artier work may be disappointed, but the film is ideal for folks looking for a good, long laugh.

DVD extras include several making-of features.

 
The Women
2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking
New Line Cinema
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Occasionally, we get a film that astonishes with its sheer volume of missed opportunities, and this year’s entry is “The Women.”

The picture is a remake of a 1939 comedy by George Cukor, which was itself adapted from a successful stage play. The pedigree of the piece is so impressive, that it’s painful to watch the 2008 remake fail, but fail it does.

The focus is on a group of East coast pals enduring a series of crises. Most prominent is Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), a fashion designer who learns that her husband is cheating on her. Already devastated, she becomes more distraught when her best friend — magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening) — sells her out to a gossip rag.

As Sylvie and Mary work through their differences, audiences get to know them and their close friends, Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), as well as the woman (Eva Mendes) who ruined Mary’s marriage.

“The Women” definitely packs star power, as Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Fisher and Bette Midler show up in supporting roles. Alas, their talents are wasted because the film is filled with false moments, making it one of the biggest disappointments of 2008.

DVD extras include additional scenes, a making-of feature and interviews with the cast and crew.

 
Hamlet 2
3 ½ stars
Rated R for language including sexual references, brief nudity and some drug content
Universal Studios
Available now on DVD

Steve Coogan is hilarious as Dana Marschz, a failed actor who embraces his passion for the arts by teaching drama in a Tucson, Ariz., high school. After years of producing shows that get roundly hammered by the school’s ninth grade theater critic (Shea Pepe), Coogan is inspired to write his own work, a sequel to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Never mind that everyone died at the end of the original, Marschz has a convention that brings the characters back to life and allows them to meet up with none other than Jesus Christ.

When word gets out about the educator’s offbeat production, it prompts public outrage, and the conservative school board attempts to ban it. Fortunately for Marschz, his ragtag group of drama students are dedicated to his project, no matter how bad it may be.

As mentioned, Coogan is outstanding and his outing is bolstered by strong supporting turns from Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and David Arquette. Much credit is due writer-director Andrew Fleming and his co-writer Pam Brady. They created a tale that is unique and consistently funny, and Fleming executed it to perfection.

DVD extras include deleted scenes and a making-of feature.

 
American Teen
3 ½ stars
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking — all involving teens
Paramount Pictures
Available now on DVD

Few documentary films are as authentic and engaging as director Nanette Burstein’s look at five high school students going through their senior year. And, because Burstein follows students from a variety of cliques, everyone can relate.

There’s Colin, the basketball star; Megan, the popular girl; Jake, the band geek; Mitch, the good-looking jock; and Hannah, the artsy outsider. Burstein sees each “character” through a variety of ups and downs, including relationship problems, the struggle to get into a good college, and the pressure of competing in a high-profile sports program.

The film features intimate footage that’s so good it’s difficult to imagine how Burstein and her crew captured it. In fact, some critics have questioned the movie’s authenticity. But Burstein defends the project, and it’s so charming and enjoyable that it’s pointless to condemn it on what-ifs.

The DVD includes deleted scenes and interviews with the cast.

 
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The House Bunny”: Romantic comedy starring Anna Farris as a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother of a nerdy sorority. Colin Hanks, Emma Stone, Kat Dennnings and Katharine McPhee also star.

“Beethoven’s Big Break”: Direct-to-DVD sequel to the long-running “Beethoven” franchise. This one focuses on an animal handler (Jonathan Silverman) who refuses to let his son keep a stray St. Bernard until the canine star of his latest movie is kidnapped. Suddenly the St. Bernard gets his shot at the big time. “Big Break” will be released as a standalone title and as part of the six-movie Beethoven’s Dog-gone Best Movie pack on Dec. 26.

“Pulse 3”: Latest sequel in the horror franchise about terrifying creatures who use modern technological items as a conduit to attack and kill humans. Directed by “Pulse 2” helmer Joel Soisson.

 
— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic who has written for some of the largest newspapers in the United States. Contact him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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