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Mystery Science Theater 3000 among new DVD releases 

BODY OF LIES (2008). Despite Russell Crowe's shared marquee billing, this is really Leonardo DiCaprio's film, as the young thespian handles the part of Roger Ferris, a compassionate CIA point man working in the Middle East under the jaded eye of his ruthless superior (Crowe) back in the United States. Hoping to track down a bin Laden-like terrorist (a menacing Alon Aboutboul) responsible for a series of attacks on America and its allies, Ferris ends up traveling to Jordan and entering into a terse relationship with Hani Salaam (Stardust's Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. The film's best scenes are between DiCaprio and Strong, as their characters alternate between working together and keeping each other at arm's length. Better than the vast majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such heavy-handed duds as Rendition and Redacted. Director Ridley Scott and The Departed's Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monaghan (working from David Ignatius' novel) refrain from merely putting Ferris and Hoffman through the good-cop-bad-cop routine: Ferris' idealism isn't always beneficial, and while Hoffman might be a prick, he occasionally exhibits more clarity than might be expected. Even a superfluous romance between Ferris and a Muslim nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) allows for some insight into societal disapproval for such a coupling, as the pair can't even shake hands in public. It's this extra attention to smaller details that gives this Body its necessary heft.

There are no extras on the DVD besides trailers.

Movie: ***

Extras: *

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XIV (1989-1999). Shout! Factory releases its first collection of MST3K episodes since the 20th Anniversary Edition last fall, and it's a valentine to all of us MiSTies who long ago stopped having to circulate the tapes.

The Mad Monster (movie made in 1942; featured on MST3K in 1989) is the weakest of the quartet. Just the third episode to air on Comedy Central, it showed that Joel Hodgson and team were still perfecting the format, with too much dead air between quips and too much repetitive material; plus, J. Elvis Weinstein, as lad assistant Dr. Laurence Erhardt, proved to be spectacularly unfunny – he also dully provided the voice for Tom Servo – and it was a blessing when he was eventually replaced by Frank Conniff as TV's Frank and Kevin Murphy as Servo. Still, there are some choice moments in this outing, as Joel and sidekicks Servo and Crow skewer a "B" programmer about a mad scientist (George Zucco) who develops a serum that turns his simpleminded gardener (Glenn Strange) into a murderous werewolf.

Manhunt in Space (movie made in 1956; featured on MST3K in 1992) is hands-down the best of the bunch, as Joel and co. aim their laserbeam wit at a sci-fi cheapie that was actually several episodes of the TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger cobbled together. The Satellite of Love crew are at their most wicked when they're targeting goofy sidekicks and spunky kids, and Manhunt in Space includes both among its cast of characters. As an added bonus, Joel and the 'bots also take down an early (mid-1960s) episode of the long-running soap General Hospital.

Mike Nelson takes over viewing duties from Joel Hodgson for the other two episodes in this set, both of which come courtesy of the show's 11th and final season. Soultaker (movie made in 1990; featured on MST3K in 1999) may bear a 1990 stamp date, but it's clearly a product of the 1980s, leading Mike and the 'bots to make several cracks referencing the likes of Ghostbusters, "Sunglasses at Night" and the big-hair look. As for the film itself, it's a stinkbomb starring Joe Estevez (Martin Sheen's brother) as the title character, trying to harness the spirits of four irksome teens. This episode's pretty engaging, and it's also noteworthy in that Hodgson and Conniff (TV's Frank) briefly pop up in special appearances.

Final Justice (movie made in 1985; featured on MST3K in 1999) is a special treat, if for the simple fact that it stars Joe Don Baker, who famously trashed the show after the show trashed one of his earlier movies (Mitchell). Here, the crew gets another shot at Baker, and they're even more merciless this time around. Baker plays a Texas sheriff with the improbable name Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III; as the character huffs around Malta in an effort to bring an escaped killer back to the U.S., the boys are given plenty of opportunities to crack wise about the actor's girth. ("Meatloaf: Texas Ranger" is pretty funny, though my favorite has to be, "If I don't survive, make sure they bury me next to a Sizzler.")

DVD extras include an interview with Soultaker star Joe Estevez; an interview with Final Justice writer-director-producer Greydon Clark; the original trailer for The Mad Monster; and four mini-posters featuring Crow and Tom Servo.

Collection: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008). There's a scene in Miracle at St. Anna in which a light bulb mysteriously flickers back to life, and it feels as if director Spike Lee is paying tribute to whimsical Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Alas, that moment passes, and it no longer becomes clear exactly what Lee is honoring with this baffling motion picture. Certainly, he wants to pay tribute to the black soldiers who served this country during World War II, but a more linear narrative might have helped him accomplish that goal. This turns out to be a traffic jam of good intentions crossed with clumsy storytelling, opening and closing with a contemporary (read: 1983) framework that's supposed to infuse the story with a heady mystery but only adds unnecessary clutter to the 150-minute film. The flashback portion of the movie finds four African-American soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller) stranded in a Tuscan village in Nazi-occupied territory. The quartet take it upon themselves to protect the locals, leading to underdeveloped storylines involving Italian partisans, supernatural intervention and, worst of all, an ongoing feud between two of the men as they vie for the attention of a shapely villager (Valentina Cervi, trapped in an impossible madonna/whore role). Despite his personal commitment to the material, Lee rarely blesses this picture with his trademark style, an expression of cinematic prowess that enlivens even his clunkiest films. On the contrary, there's no moviemaking miracle at work here, just a half-baked project that might be Lee's biggest disappointment to date.

There are no extras on the DVD besides trailers.

Movie: **

Extras: *

NIGHTS IN RODANTHE (2008). Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. The former made the most of its setting and its star, resulting in a winning romantic comedy whose lovestruck spirit rubbed off on audience members eager to lap up its sense of joie de vivre. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe, on the other hand, starts off well as Tuscan Sun's more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of the shameless plot devices thrust upon it by author Nicholas Sparks and adapters Ann Peacock and John Romano. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time (following 1984's The Cotton Club and 2002's Unfaithful), plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend's (Doubt Oscar nominee Viola Davis) beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband (Christopher Meloni) is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgical procedure that went tragically wrong. As the only two people stuck at the inn, Adrienne and Paul open up to each other and gradually fall in love. For a while, Nights in Rodanthe works as a mature and even touching drama, but then the melodramatic devices take over with the impact of a hurricane. And speaking of hurricane, the second-act emergence of this force of nature is but one of the hoary aspects that sink the production, along with a sour twist that is as expected as it is defeatist.

There are no extras on the DVD besides trailers.

Movie: **

Extras: *

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