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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
This month's releases of documentaries on DVD run the gamut from inspiration to aggravation to sounding alarms. Coincidentally with the glitzy, computer-enhanced action flick, 300, celebrating brilliant stand at Thermopylae in 480 A.D. by a small cadre of Spartans against a massive Persian army, the History Channel's Last Stand of the 300 shows even more persuasively how valiant and significant their sacrifice proved to be.

The script provides historical and technical perspectives, including the key role of Greece's similarly-outnumbered navy, that make the accomplishment even more impressive than the hyperthyroid depiction of those forces in the movie. Talking heads, graphics and location shots support live re-enactments of the heroics. But for that brave stand, Greece might have never become more than a group of quarreling city-states, and the principles of democracy it generated might have been lost to yet another empire.

No matter what you thought of Richard Milhous Nixon, his time in the White House shaped our country and the world - for better or worse. Or both. Nixon: A Presidency Revealed offers an interesting balanced view of the man, his administration, and his legacy, including footage from his career and reflections by many who knew him, including several insiders. He's presented as a man of great vision, with surprisingly little taste for politics, and a growing paranoia that led to his undoing. Though known as a conservative in his time, his policies would now seem far to the left of today's Republicans. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency, established methadone programs for prisons to reduce crime at the causative end, and made bold, virtually unprecedented diplomatic overtures to our main enemies of the day, China and the USSR, before sowing the seeds of his resignation and disgrace with the infamous tapes, enemies list and Watergate.

If you want to get angry about Katrina again, Big Easy to Big Empty will do the trick. Recent footage of how little has yet been cleaned up, much less rebuilt, will likely shock anyone who hasn't been there since the hurricane. Comments from displaced locals will tug at your heart, while statements by regional experts about what they knew and who knew it before disaster struck might enrage most citizens. Government failed them at the time, and has barely scratched the surface at delivering on its promises ever since.

Islam: What the West Needs to Know offers a bone-chilling historical and scriptural analysis of the underpinnings of today's clash in the Middle East and globally. Scholars, including a former PLO terrorist, explain the contradictions between the oft-cited parts of the Koran that match Judeo-Christian ideals of peace and compassion with those used to justify Jihadist acts of violence in the name of their religion. If these perspectives are accurate, we need to drastically revise our policies, tactics and expectations. We're not just facing the recent results of US and European policies, but a recurrence of deeply held beliefs and goals that have waxed and waned throughout the last 1400 years.

On the lighter side of violence, IFC's The Spaghetti West gives us an entertaining and informative look at the low-budget, high-octane oaters from the 1960s - '70s that made Clint Eastwood a legend, and made American cowboys role models for Europeans. It also gave us Ennio Morricone's outstanding music (has anyone ever done better than his score for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly?). Clint wasn't Sergio Leone's first choice for A Few Dollars More; but he was affordable ($15,000) and available. The rest is history, including over 500 movies shot mostly in Spain by Italian directors in an eight-year span, making a star of Franco Nero, and extending the careers of several US tough guys. The last gasp of the genre was probably the spoof treatment Terence Hill served up in the Trinity films. They show clips that whetted my appetite for a whole bunch of flicks I've missed. Work. Work. Work.

The fortunes of martial arts and tabloid star Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to slump in the direct-to-video crime flick, Until Death. This time he's a New Orleans police detective, coping with bad guys, a pregnant ex-wife, and his own heroin addiction. R-rated more for its violence than sex, JCVD's acting is adequate for the role. But one misses the artistry of his impressively choreographed fights when he played kickboxers.

Luckily, he didn't have to face the star of Primeval - an African crocodile that grew to massive proportions and developed a craving for humans. Regrettably, this otherwise run-of-the-mill gorefest is based on real events. A giant croc, known to the locals as Gustave, developed into a monster from feeding on corpses left in mass graves from civil wars and genocide. The DVD's extras include features on the locations and the creature, which is still roaming free, and reportedly has killed over 300 people.

Moving up to classier fare, Masterpiece Theater released Ruby in the Smoke, the first of its Sally Lockhart Mysteries, based on novels by Philip Pullman. Think of Sally (Billie Piper) as the Victorian ancestor of Nancy Drew and Jessica Fletcher - bright, independent, scholarly, and way ahead of the curve for women in scientific curiosity. In this maiden outing, she innocently falls into circumstances of intrigue and danger, meets some streetwise friends along the way, and plunges into the mystery du jour. Julie Walters probably relished hamming it up as the wretchedly nasty hag among the villains. Not her usual cup of tea, but quite well done.

Raining Stones is a moving dramedy from the Isles about a working-class father struggling to buy a Communion dress for his daughter in almost Dickensian circumstances. Cheaper options are offered, but a dad's gotta do what a dad's gotta do. You may have trouble with the dialects if your ear isn't attuned, or your TV doesn't accommodate the DVD's captioning option.

Less successful is a contemporary whiff at a Romeo-and-Juliet romantic comedy, A Tale of Two Pizzas. A couple of guys you'll recall from The Sopranos own rival pizzerias in a Yonkers neighborhood. As the owners vie for market share, the son of one and the daughter of the other fall in love. Alas, the story is as dumb and predictable as your worst fears. Let's hope the death of Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) on HBO's long-running drama won't mean an eternity of projects like this.

Finishing on a campy high note, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai is a total hoot. Not all the guilty-pleasure film fare from Japan is animated. This one's a soft-core porn comedy, with a thread of sophomoric political satire. Sachiko is a tutor of sorts, though more libidinous than learned. She's shot in the head due to bad luck in choosing a restaurant. But the wound leaves her with sporadic fits that unpredictably range from scientific genius, to philosopher to nymphomaniac. She also winds up with the cloned finger of President Bush - a digit with awesome powers and hotly-contested political value. The bad guys who created it want it back, as do many others. The proceedings are every bit as silly as it sounds, plus the bonus of bountiful T&A. Be sure to watch the bonus shorts, too. More fun when you're done.

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