Author and actors give history a chance to speak Feb. 8, 2010
By G. Michael Dobbs
Three radically different DVDs are featured in this week's review column.
The People Speak
The recent passing of author, historian and social activist Howard Zinn will undoubtedly call attention to the DVD release of "The People Speak," an adaptation of his famous book, "A People's History of the United States."
"The People Speak" was broadcast on A&E and this DVD release includes as extras a "making of" feature as well as interviews with some of the well-known performers who participated in it.
Filmed primarily at a theater in San Francisco, "The People Speak" is narrated by Zinn, who explained he wrote the book in 1980 in response to history texts that told only one side of the American story. His aim was to use original texts and documents to illustrate other events and points of view.
Like all histories, the outlook of the author influences the narrative. Zinn, who was active in the Civil Rights movement as well as the anti-Vietnam War efforts, sees things from a leftist point of view. His book and this film are not the things that will sit well with the FOX News crowd.
The film has various actors Danny Glover, Viggo Mortenson and Rosario Dawson to name three read the words of people who were part of the events Zinn presented. These sequences are quite moving. When one hears an account of how a 10-year-old African-American girl was denied the opportunity to play on a swing set reserved for white kids, you can feel her pain and anger.
For me as a journalist, these first-person accounts are the most important parts of the film, rather than Zinn's framework. I found his presentation was made with too broad of a stroke. History is about details, context as well as the big picture.
I do have to admit as well I didn't like the way he dismissed the significance of Shays' Rebellion. Rather than mention its importance as the catalyst for the writing of the Constitution, Zinn said there were thousands of people involved at the time in mini-rebellions against state authorities. Nor did he say how Thomas Jefferson actually endorsed the questioning of the status quo.
Depending upon your political beliefs, you might find "The People Speak" an affirmation or a challenge. It is certainly provocative, which is one of the main jobs of any historical account.
Collector's Edition: Criss Angel Mindfreak
I recently was asked to review this 15-disc DVD set that contains seasons one through five of the A&E television series with illusionist Criss Angel.
Besides all of his shows, there are commentaries, interviews, uncut episodes and even a tutorial on creating one's own tricks.
I've watched enough of this to know that if you're like me - a guy who was brought up watching Mark Wilson on television and reading about Houdini - Angel has a certain appeal. I like magic.
Angel is the Houdini for the present generation who has cleverly packaged his escapes and tricks with reality show family drama and heavy metal music. Houdini was also a master of framing his tricks for the maximum impact and it's fascinating for me to see how Houdini's public relations stunts have evolved into Angel's reality show format.
Fascination, though, doesn't translate into my being able to stomach him when he isn't just trying to get out of some box. The family drama as well as his efforts to be a rock musician leave me cold.
It's too bad you can't just hit a button somewhere on this set and just get the illusions. That would be the best trick of all.
Another zombie movie! Dobbs, that makes three zombie movies in almost as many columns!
Sorry, folks, but I can't help the recent zombie explosion -- no pun intended, as they have been know to explode -- and this one was too outrageous to pass up.
Made in Norway as a clear homage to Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" movies, "Dead Snow" has something fairly new to the genre, Nazi zombies.
Now to be fair, Nazi zombies were featured in the 1976 movie "Shock Waves," so the idea isn't completely original, but director and writer Tommy Wirkola made it his own.
A group of Norwegian medical students decide to spend Easter break in a remote cabin. An old sinister codger, who just turns up at their door looking for some coffee, tells them there is an evil presence in the woods. He explains an SS unit that had been occupying the area during World War II were trapped and apparently killed by the local population.
Well, what he hasn't told them is that somehow this bunch have been turned into flesh-eating zombies. They are not your basic George Romero, lurching about undead. No, these guys are organized and they are quick.
When members of the group find themselves as snacks, the remainder decide they have to take a stand. They even break out a chainsaw in a clear nod to Raimi's films.
Unlike "Zombieland" that soft-pedaled the gore, "Dead Snow" doesn't shy away from it and manages to do it with such outrageousness that it is difficult for a horror fan such as myself not to giggle instead of shudder. That being said, be aware that although this DVD is not rated, it would be a very hard "R" for violence.
The two-disc set has several making-of features as well as out-takes.