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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
This month's selection of documentaries and TV fare on DVD starts with a bonanza. What movie buff wouldn't enjoy the nine-disc boxed set from the Biography series, Legends of the Silver Screen? They add up to about eleven hours of clips, interviews and comments on many of the greats - Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Shirley Temple and Betty Boop.

The ninth, Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own covers the moguls who built the studio system. These profiles of lives and careers will remind you why our icons became what they were (and are), including facts and context even their fans may not have fully appreciated. Collectively, it summarizes how our love affair with movies has so profoundly influenced style, culture and even politics throughout the last century. Don't underestimate Ms. Boop in that regard; her "career arc" is more sociologically significant than one likely assumes.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus is either heresy, thought-provoking, or tempest-in-a-teapot, depending on your beliefs. The Discovery Channel's coverage of remains found in Jerusalem that may, or may not, be traceable to Jesus and his family, raises some highly-charged questions. Obviously, no one knows what the evidence truly adds up to, but the controversy and swirl of opinions is fascinating. Footage includes first-hand exploration of the sites.

The History Channel's releases of Barbarians II and The Dark Ages cover centuries of transition from the glory days Rome to the chaos that followed, before Europe stabilized and literacy flourished again. The former is a two-disc set, sequentially "starring" the Vandals, Saxons, Franks and Lombards. The latter overlaps the same eras, focusing more specifically on the demise of Rome (citing internal dissension, incompetence among the ruling class, natural disasters and other factors alarmingly analogous to current events). If that's not scary enough, one of the bonus features casually mentions that bubonic plague, which decimated much of Europe and Asia, is still around...even in the U.S. All episodes use a mix of dramatizations, voice-overs and commentary from a number of experts to help us learn from the past, and avoid the screwups that allowed good countries and cultures to go bad.

Aftershock
brings us closer to the here and now. Most of us thought the Civil War ended slavery, and that Reconstruction was hard on the South, but ultimately preserved their economy and the Union. Most curricula omit or minimize the scope of resistance and extent of violence in the following decade throughout the former Confederate states. Slavers still intimidated their former workers into staying; many were terrorized and murdered; states passed myriad laws negating privileges of emancipation (owning land, voting, etc.). After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson shortchanged his programs designed to give freed slaves a fair chance with land grants and education, because he never embraced the concept of equality. On the other hand, many laws and practices by the "Carpetbaggers" were unduly harsh on former rebels, whose homes, social and economic structure had already been devastated. The Ku Klux Klan started in Tennessee and spread quickly. That decade saw what we'd now call terrorism rampant in all those states, leaving scars we still feel today. Remind you of any recent post-conquest insurgency difficulties?

That brings us to The War Tapes - three hours of footage (the original version and bonuses), mostly from personal videos shot by members of a New England National Guard unit deployed to Iraq. This covers it all - in-country action and down time, families back home, physical and emotional perils and consequences, including the aftermath of their tour of duty. Though most of these soldiers grew disenchanted with aspects of the reasons for war and/or the way our leaders managed it logistically (training, materials, role of contractors, etc), this is not just an anti-war polemic. Their responses and thoughts about the future are diverse. Mostly, this gives us a candid, insightful sense of what our troops are being asked to do, from which any viewer can draw his/her own conclusions about where we should go from here. For those of us who haven't lived in their boots, the education this offers is essential.

For the fully disenchanted, Escape to Canada posits that our quiet northern neighbor just might be more deservedly labeled "The land of the free" than the US. The focus is on its approach to gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana, especially for medical uses. These points have been as controversial and bitterly debated there as here, but the process and results thus far are markedly different. Without the pervasive influence of a faction like our Religious Right (which actually did pour funds into pushing its legislative agenda up there) the tone of debate and basis for decisions is quite different. The film is an amusing and enlightening reminder of the gap between rhetoric and principle that seems to be poisoning our own processes - a trend more alarming than the issues on the table.

The most enjoyable of the lot (unless you're a hard-core Creationist) is BBC Worldwide America's three-part presentation of Galapagos. Stunning photography highlights a fine narrative that presents the history and science of this uniquely fascinating group of islands - especially their seminal role in inspiring Darwin's Origin of the Species. Nature filming doesn't get better than this. Aerial views establish the volcanic creation and diversity of the islands; underwater and close-up views of its inhabitants, large and small, are amazing; the development of physical attributes and behaviors specific to their environment, unlike members of the same species; in some cases, even from one island to the next, makes Darwin's conclusions understandable.

The Brits provided most of the rest of our fare this month. On the sitcom side, the first two seasons of One Foot in the Grave give the impression they're more comfortable with aging than we are. Curmudgeonly Victor (Richard Wilson) is forced into retirement at 60 from his security-guard job (replaced by a box that recognizes electronic ID codes, no less), to the consternation of the gent, his wife (Annette Crosbie), and just about everyone else who has to deal with this old dude who was never much joy to be around, but grew even pricklier with unwanted time on his hands. The scripts are well-written, without the forced titillation value of our only hit series covering a comparable stage of life, The Golden Girls. Both seasons include six half-hour episodes; the second adds its 1990 Christmas Special.

On the dramatic side, Tom Brown's Schooldays is a solid Dickensian sort of tale, set in a mid-1800s boarding school. Tom is a newcomer, as is the headmaster (Stephen Fry); both face the unpleasant task of coping with the long-tolerated tradition of bullying - physically hard on Tom; spiritually offensive to Fry. Solid performances - including the bully who feels invulnerable, since his father's endowments keep the school afloat - make this one work well. Also praiseworthy is the job done by the creative team, condensing Thomas Hughes' 19th Century novel into a brisk 93 minutes, which far too many period dramas fail to accomplish.

An example of such excess is the three+ hour miniseries adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers - a protracted feeding of Freudian soup. Mom marries a brutish, hard-drinking miner. Before long, he disgusts her. They have two sons; the cool one dies; the sensitive younger one finds himself torn between love, or the illusion of it, among mummy, a sweet young lass, and a hot older woman, who's also married to a lout. The first half plays out like the staid, talky historical fare on Masterpiece Theater's less successful ventures; the latter is surprisingly lurid for the medium, including more nudity than we'd expect over here. Saving grace or offensive? Your mileage may vary.

For laughs without nudity, the fourth season (1992-3) of Wings is a real treat. The cliffhanger ending of year three, with most of the cast about to go down in the plane, does result in an oceanic crash, but everyone survives (duh). Brian and Joe (Steven Weber, Tim Daly) struggle to keep their charter business afloat thereafter, while romances come and go. Farrah Forke spiced up the popular sitcom, joining the company as a hot chopper pilot everyone drooled over. Those who haven't seen the show will also enjoy the oddball supporting roles of Antonio and Lowell that launched Tony Shalhoub and Thomas Haden Church to much greater glory thereafter in both TV and feature films. The writing still plays well, too.

Finally, those with insatiable appetites for animal programming (like a certain woman I'm delighted to be married to) will be in Hog Heaven with the two-disc 131st Westminster kennel Club Dog Show: Special Collector's Edition. Even if the suspense of who will win each category is over, devotees can groove on hours of unaired footage, behind-the-scenes features, closer looks at the winners and the owners they drag along to the competitions. Fun stuff for our society's prima donnas that never wind up in the tabloids, unlike their Hollywood counterparts. What they do ON the tabloids may provide lessons for us all.  

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