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
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
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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