Burn After Reading (R, 2008, Universal)
Even if you cobble it together in a ball and serve it in a trough, a purported cake with the right balance of ingredients baked for the right amount of time still tastes pretty delicious. A similar equation applies to “Burn After Reading,” which chronicles, over 96 insane minutes, an absurd series of misunderstandings between a jilted former CIA agent (John Malkovich), his former employers (David Rasche, J.K. Simmons), his wife (Tilda Swinton), her paranoid lover (George Clooney), a Russian embassy representative (Olek Krupa) and a trio of gym employees (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins). Even by the Coen Brothers’ standards, “Reading” pushes hard the limits of narrative stability and credibility. But whenever the temptation to dismiss the thing looms nearby, “Reading’s” exceptional cast pushes it back — sometimes through a stupidly funny exchange, other times with nothing more than a perfectly-executed nervous tick. “Reading” prioritizes character above all, and it’s brought to life by actors who absolutely get their characters at all costs. A twist at around the hour mark leaves the film with 30 minutes to spare and the tall order of wrapping things up in any kind of sensible fashion. All seems lost as the minutes tick away … until one last brilliantly funny exchange, spanning all of a couple minutes, absolutely nails it.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features.
Hamlet 2 (R, 2008, Universal)
It may not be Shakespeare, not even close, but this tale of a failed actor, failed husband and failure-in-the-making drama teacher (Steve Coogan) staging some seriously bad Shakespearian fan fiction in hopes of saving his school’s drama program most definitely is epic. “Hamlet 2” is so epic, in fact, it cuts corners to tell its story and leave room for humor for humor’s sake. Most glaringly, the plot smoothes over and sometimes just skips conflicts that would seem to pose a bigger obstacle than they do. But there’s something to be said for a movie that slips past the predictable because it would rather hang out in absurd country. That, from the title on down, is what “Hamlet 2” does, and it’s also something at which it particularly and continually excels. The easily offended probably should pass: “Hamlet 2” isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty just because it feels like it, and the grand finale is an all-you-can-eat buffet of offense. All the decency violations would be hard to defend if the thing wasn’t funny enough to back it up, but “Hamlet 2,” happily, continually ensures that isn’t an issue. If you weren’t a fan of Coogan’s work before, his hilarious, lovable turn here might change that forever. Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Poehler, David Arquette and Marshall Bell, along with a fantastic cast of relative newcomers, also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scene, two behind-the-scenes features, sing-along.
American Teen (PG-13, 2008, Paramount)
Ladies and gentlemen, start your archetypes: Between the jock, the homecoming queen, the supernerd, the heartthrob and the outcast, “American Teen” — which documents a senior year in the life of five high school students — has the bases covered. As entertainment goes, “Teen” certainly understands its material and is exceptionally skilled at weaving our five subjects’ multi-tiered stories into some pretty compelling filmmaking. You might even say it’s too skilled for its own good. More than occasionally, “Teen” produces a scene that feels just a little bit staged, be it due to a suspect camera angle, suspicious audio/visual enhancement or something funny in how the scene is set. The authenticity of certain events and exchanges are arguable, but it’s almost completely beyond debate — regardless of how honest the intentions and results are — that the stories have undergone some severe tinkering in the editing room. That doesn’t necessarily sink “Teen” as a film worth experiencing. Incredibility and murky intentions taint the film’s ability to resonate, but it doesn’t impede “Teen’s” ability to entertain if you watch it with that simple intention in mind.
Extras: Deleted scenes, cast interviews, Hannah (the outcast) video blogs.
The House Bunny (PG-13, 2008, Sony Pictures)
It remains a shame that Anna Faris seems either uninterested in or incapable of finding her way into better movies than she does. The fortunate side effect, though, is that she takes what she’s given and makes it considerably better than it otherwise ever had any right to be. Unwatchable films become watchable with her in the driver’s seat, while completely uninspired ideas morph into something approaching good. “The House Bunny” falls into the latter pool, with a plot — fallen Playboy Bunny (Faris) stumbles into nerdy sorority house and vows to help the girls (Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Katharine McPhee and Rumer Willis, among a few more) tart up and save their house — that is harmless but wildly derivative. Cross “Revenge of the Nerds” with any number of teen comedies from the last 15 years, and you know exactly where this one is going. But it arguably doesn’t matter. Faris is just that good and just that funny, turning in perhaps the best spacey blonde performance in the history of spacey blondes, and she only rarely disappears from the screen before returning with another killer line or perfectly-timed delivery. That’s not enough to make “Bunny” a great film, but it’s more than enough to keep it entertaining while it goes through its motions.
Extras: Deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, music video.
Death Race: Unrated (NR, 2008, Universal)
Really now, why does this keep happening? In fairness to the Hollywood brain trust, remaking “Death Race 2000” isn’t the worst idea in the world. That film came out in 1975, and the benefits of updating a movie about lowlifes racing high-speed, weapon-encrusted machines of death are pretty obvious. So fine, here it is. Unfortunately, the things that made “2000” such a beloved B-movie classic — social commentary, a dark sense of humor and a soul, to give an idea — go completely missing in the remake, which opts instead for a stone-faced script that, despite a higher violence quotient, is entirely gutless by comparison. Jason Statham takes over the role of Frankenstein, and per usual, his charisma goes completely to waste. Between the list of accomplished actors collecting easy paychecks (Joan Allen, Ian McShane) and unwatchable bores failing miserably to fill big shoes (Tyrese Gibson as Machine Gun Joe), it only gets worse down the line. Fortunately, the pain is temporary. And if there’s one thing fans of the original can celebrate about the new “Race,” it’s that. This mess came and went in theaters, and it’ll do the same on DVD. And long after it’s been forgotten — let’s put the over/under at six months — the classic will live on.
Extras: Theatrical and unrated cuts, director/producer commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.