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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
This month's documentaries on DVD give you a choice among being scared, inspired or informed. Beginning with the dire warnings, A Crude Awakening and Terrorstorm 2nd Edition might convince you to cash in your savings and indulge yourself before society turns post-Apocalyptic.

The former documents the rapidly escalating rate at which we're exhausting the world's fossil fuels, compared to the minuscule amounts of new oil that have been discovered in the last forty years. Existing reserves may have been severely overstated by the OPEC countries sitting on them for short-term financial advantages. All known alternative fuel sources are either drops in the bucket, or hinge on technology advances for conversion and storage yet to be devised, to stave off global economic collapse. What took the earth millions of years to form will be depleted in less than two centuries of industry.

The terrorism treatise comes from Alex Jones, whose first Terrorstorm laid out his case for the attacks on 9/11 being a politically-motivated inside job from the Boys in the Beltway. Again mixing facts and "expert opinions" with the producer's speculations, Jones tries to build his credibility with examples of state-sponsored terrorism and subversion in the 20th Century, by our own government and others, to justify wars or other forms of power-grab. Even if Jones' conclusions are far-fetched, if not paranoid, there's still value in watching his examples, from which you can draw your own conclusions.

Howling with the Angels also looks backwards to recognize analogs to the present, covering the plight of Czechoslovakia before, during and after WW II. In the 1930s, that county was a model of multi-cultural democracy and economic recovery, overcoming regionalized ethnic differences among its populace. Due to proximity and resources, it was Hitler's first target. He convinced the war-weary English, French and Italians to renounce treaties that included defending the Czechs, by claiming that was all he'd want, and peace would prevail. Wrong.

As told by several survivors of the Czech military, the West essentially sold them out due to its desperate desire to believe Germany could be appeased, rather than face the horrors of another devastating war, while they were still reeling from the first one. Czech soldiers who were lucky enough to escape, fought alongside their neighbors trying to liberate their homeland, only to find an even wearier set of Western allies ceding dominion over them to Russia in 1945, rather than take on Stalin. The consequences for that nation and its people have been appalling, from the Concentration Camps to the Iron Curtain. Lessons to be learned, rather than mistakes to be forgotten.

Thanks to Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy, The Mormons holds more timely interest now than when it first aired on PBS. This offers a straightforward look at the history and tenets of the most eminent Christian sect to begin in America, starting with Joseph's Smith's claimed revelations in the early 1800s, persecutions and reprisals that followed, bringing us to the present. It addresses the polygamy controversy, and the infamous 1857 massacre of a wagon train of settlers passing through the Utah Territory on their way to California that is fictionalized in the upcoming feature film, September Dawn.

Roving Mars is the DVD release of an IMAX film covering the exhaustive preparations and results of sending two robot explorers to our closest neighbor. Most of the footage is computer-generated, rather than actual photos from the synthetic scouts. One will appreciate the enormous effort those missions required. But the film isn't all that exciting without the enveloping scope of IMAX venues. Among the extra features is a terrific 1957 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, narrated by Orson Welles. Mostly using animation, we get the history of Earth and our relationship to the cosmos, beginning with the earliest known theories and fiction, leading to speculations about future exploration, as envisioned just before Sputnik started the actual Space Race. Amusing and informative - especially the irony of Welles casually including H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, without reference to his own role in its history (if you don't know, cross-check him with radio and 1938). In this case, the bonus is more entertaining than the feature. 

The space theme continues with TV series fare. Star Trek: Fan Collective - Captain's Log is the latest generation-spanning package of favored episodes from all five incarnations of the series, each with its own disc, totaling nearly fourteen hours of astral adventures. Each of the captains picked his/her (Kate Mulgrew broke into the frat) own; Trekkies voted for two or three others. Bonuses abound, ranging from commentary by the stars, to reflections and examinations of aspects of their series. You even get Joan Collins discussing her guest shot in the original. One might surmise Shatner/Kirk still has the hots for Ms. Collins, her character, or both. He wouldn't be the only one in the known universe, though she may not meet the "where no man's gone before" directive from Star Fleet. 

If that doesn't slake your intergalactic thirst, try the 48 hourlong episodes of Space: 1999 that reunited real-life spouses Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from 1975-78, six years after they'd co-starred in Mission Impossible; plus Barry Morse, a dozen years after his zealous pursuit of Dr. Richard Kimble on The Fugitive. A huge explosion at our lunar base for deeper space exploration knocked the moon out of orbit. At their stage of technology, Earth was suddenly out of range for return flights, or even communication. They couldn't even learn how their disaster affected the planet. All the 300+ space orphans could do is drift through the cosmos, hoping to discover a habitable world or means of returning to (whatever might be left of ) Earth before running out of resources, getting wiped out by alien lifeforms, or fatally colliding with another body. Compared to Star Trek, this series was more cerebral, with less action and humor. Set designs and f/x were pretty good for its era. Guest aliens included the aforementioned Ms. Collins, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and a recurring role for the otherworldly (by any definition) Catherine Schell. Their costumes provide the last known display of Rudi Gernreich's then-hip unisex fashions.

For earthly comedy, we have several choices. Reno 911! The Complete Fourth Season is not only a treat for fans of this campy spoof of all the police reality shows, but filled with great bonuses. Cast and director commentaries on DVDs are invariably dull. But most of these performers started in improv and worked together before, making their voice-overs more entertaining and informative than the norm. You'll get the sense of wanting to hang out with them on the set to enjoy all the stuff that doesn't make it to the broadcasts on Comedy Central, including how much of the final version is unscripted, flowing from sensibilities the actors developed in their stage days. You'll also get a kick out of in-character profiles shot specifically for DVD release.

Less satisfying is The Best of Kids in the Hall, Volume Two. Though I've enjoyed individual work by this wacky Canadian quintets - notably Dave Foley and Scott Thompson - I'd not seen much of their sketch series..or the Volume One of their "best" that apparently preceded this 94-minute release. What they chose for this one didn't seem all that funny, though their fans might relate better to the material - especially the recurring characters and shtick.

Comedy Zen is four hours of uncensored standup routines from mostly Asian-American comics, playing before a mainly Asian audience. Its first season includes over two hours of televised episodes, with a bonus of 90 minutes of new material. Plenty of laughs for a much broader audience than its target demographic, allowing you to discover some talented monologists you may not have otherwise been able to watch. There are certainly a number of them we'll see again.

Finishing on a dramatic note, in 1980, Diana Rigg assumed the title role in a teleplay of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Though she-who-shall-always-be-revered-as-Emma Peel shined in the part, it's disconcerting to watch her portray Norway's most famous fictional bitch in this period piece from the 1890s. Hedda's the local beauty who can never be satisfied, slyly inflicting her unhappiness and resentments on all around her to tragic results. Emma wouldda kicked Hedda's prissy, snobbish butt into another century, where she'd have had the societal opportunity to put up or shut up. But that would have played as a comedy.

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