- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

Body of Lies (Warner, $28.98) — “Body of Lies” was an intriguing financial flop. Despite starring two A-list stars (Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio) and having been directed by the formidable and popular Ridley Scott, it grossed less than $40 million at the domestic box office and was beaten in its opening weekend by a talking-dog movie and a horror remake. It was written off as just another movie about the war on terror no one wanted to see.

This was a shame because it’s one of the few movies that really deals with the trickiness of strategic decision-making in the Middle East and is one of the few released since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to treat Islamic terrorism as a real threat. Some on the right complained that the film was mealy-mouthed and steeped in moral relativism, as if Americans must be portrayed as angels on the big screen. This is silly, counterproductive and, quite frankly, unrealistic.

“Body of Lies” follows the travels of Roger Ferris (Mr. DiCaprio) and his boss, Ed Hoffman (Mr. Crowe), as they try to track down a group of terrorists setting off bombs across Europe. Roger understands how to work with the Arab intelligence agencies and the limits of technological surveillance, while Ed wants to kick down doors and force people to do his bidding. That tension drives the movie’s action and sets up its intense conclusion. This feature-free DVD is well worth a rental.

The Passion of the Christ (Fox, Blu-ray, $34.98) — The problem with “The Passion of the Christ” is that it doesn’t make any sense as a film. Considered outside of a religious context, the movie is literally incomprehensible. There’s no real plot, no progression of characters, no growth. It’s simply a series of beatings delivered to Jesus of Nazareth, scourings without end.

And that’s kind of the point.

Mel Gibson’s film is intended only for the faithful. This isn’t a movie made to tell the Easter story to those interested in learning about the historical Jesus. It’s a movie devised to remind Christians that their savior died for their sins in the most incredibly agonizing way possible. The salvation of man came at a price, and that price was His flesh. In high definition, the destruction of that flesh takes on even greater resonance.

Of course, if you’re not already a devout Christian, the movie brings little to the table. This new Blu-ray release will make a fine addition to any high-def, high-faith household, and the two-disc set contains not just a sparkly new picture but also an audio commentary with Mr. Gibson and a making-of documentary. Students of cinematography, as well as of the Bible, will find much to appreciate with this new transfer. It can’t be easy to make this much wanton brutality look so beautiful.

Sonny Bunch

Choke (Fox, $27.98) — Novelist Chuck Palahniuk is the American Nick Hornby, our foremost explorer of modern manhood. Mr. Palahniuk, though, is a lot dirtier — and a lot funnier. Both men’s works are quickly becoming the go-to guides for films about men who need to grow up. Mr. Hornby wrote “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” and last year, “Fight Club” author Palahniuk saw his second film adaptation.

“Choke” was an overlooked little masterpiece, but perhaps its subject matter kept it from the wide acclaim it deserved. How do you even begin to describe a movie about a sex addict who works at a historical theme park and dupes the wealthy by pretending to be choking in restaurants? This is one black, black comedy. As unlikely as it might seem, though, this hilarious film also manages to be mature and moving.

Sam Rockwell stars as the guy who’s trying to make his way through the 12 steps while working at a Colonial Williamsburg clone and conning fellow customers to help pay for his mom’s stay in a mental hospital. He joins actor-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg for a commentary during the feature on this disc as well as some discussion of deleted scenes.

Mr. Gregg, who made an impressive debut here, makes one feel a little sheepish for even watching these extras. “These are scenes that we didn’t want to put in the movie but which you, with your busy life, have decided to watch anyway,” he says in introduction. They’re pretty good, though — particularly one in which Sam’s mom (played with finesse by Anjelica Huston) switches dyes in boxes of hair colors. “That woman is living her life from a false place of blondness. I’m just freeing her from the fear-based constructs that enslave her,” she explains in a line that fits the cerebral comedy Mr. Palahniuk is so good at.

There’s also a casual conversation between Mr. Gregg and Mr. Palahniuk. The director eschews any push toward realism in film, saying very wisely, “I didn’t care if it was realistic; I wanted it to feel true.”

Mr. Palahniuk seems to like the film based on his book, even if it takes some departures from his source material. He says one scene Mr. Gregg added, in which an earnest stripper quotes the Bible, is “one of the most moving moments.”

He wonders where it came from, and we learn that Mr. Gregg’s father is a Stanford professor and scholar of early Christian history. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Oliver Twist (BBC, $19.98) — You could hardly please everyone with a new adaptation of old material. That holds true for this new version of Charles Dickens’ second novel, now airing on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic.” Some viewers don’t like how screenwriter Sarah Phelps has imputed seemingly religious motives to the bad men behind the workhouse where Oliver starts his life, while others find Martin Phipps’ modern-sounding score jarring. I found that new element in the screenplay hardly noticeable when the gripping story is so well-acted and told, while the soundtrack is well-suited to the tale — it’s as gloriously colorful as the immortal characters Dickens created.

The acting, as is usual with these British television productions, is at a high level, with both veterans and newcomers. Timothy Spall is a memorable but not too-over-the-top Fagin, and Anna Massey steals scenes as the kindly Mrs. Bedwin. The dashing Tom Hardy is suitably brutal as Bill Sykes, but we also get a sense of what keeps Nancy loyal to him (Sophie Okonedo, bringing something new to the character). It’s the talented and amazingly direct children who really stand out, though — William Miller as the title character and Adam Arnold as the strikingly dressed Artful Dodger.

Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season (Sony, $39.95) — “Malcolm in the Middle’s” Bryan Cranston stars as a teacher who turns to a life of crime to support his family when he finds out he has just two years to live in AMC’s Emmy-winning drama. There are more than a dozen featurettes in the three-disc set as well as deleted scenes, screen tests and commentary on some episodes.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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