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Arts F.T.A. - because Hollywood looked the other way

A great many Americans wish their country wasn't mired in Iraq, but for an all-consuming anti-war movement we must turn to the Vietnam War. Critics were being shot (by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970 at Kent State University), beaten (at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago) and placed on president Richard Nixon's enemies list. In 1971, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland were asked by dissident Howard Levy to stage an anti-war response to the touring shows of Bob Hope, who thought the war was just peachy. They lined up a few other celebrities and visited military bases in the United States to perform skits and songs for like-minded soldiers.

The first lineup didn't last long. Actors such as Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman had signed on to the revue, called F.T.A., sometimes translated as Free the Army and sometimes given a more vulgar epithet. But as Fonda says in a bonus chat on the DVD of Francine Parker's 1972 documentary F.T.A. (Docurama Films), "I was going through my humourless, pedantic, politically correct phase." She wasn't happy that all the performers were white, save for visits by comedian Dick Gregory and singer Nina Simone, or that almost all were male. So she and Sutherland created a new version of F.T.A. - four women, four men, split evenly between black and white - and took the new show overseas in 1972 to perform in the Philippines, Japan and anywhere else they could find a willing audience of GIs. In response, senior officers did all they could to prevent ordinary soldiers from turning up at the off-base sites to hear the material.

It is this tour that Parker covers, juxtaposing scenes from the show with interviews with the soldiers. Routines include the song Nothing Could Be Finer than to Be in Indochina and a skit in which Sutherland and Michael Alaimo offer play-by-play commentary on the war as if it were a sporting event. Fonda says she disappointed the soldiers by arriving on stage in street clothes with no makeup. They wanted the barely clad vixen she played in Barbarella.

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Fonda went on to play a housewife whose consciousness is raised by an injured Vietnam vet (Jon Voight), much to the chagrin of her husband (Bruce Dern). Coincidentally, that film, Coming Home (1978), was re-released this month by Twentieth Century Fox, in a two-for-one box with Norma Rae (1979). Fonda and Sally Field each won best-actress Oscars for those outings.

Figuring that wars weren't hazardous enough, scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer set about creating the atomic bomb in the 1940s, and was rewarded by being made the subject of an opera. Jon Else's 2007 documentary Wonders Are Many (also from Docurama) follows composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars as they mount the 2005 opera Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera, with Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer. The film stirs in a history lesson about Oppenheimer, using devastating, previously classified footage of 1940s nuclear tests.

Director Wolfgang Staudte got into trouble in what was then East Germany with his 1951 film The Kaiser's Lackey ( Der Untertan, literally the king's subject). The inventively filmed work is a satire on ultranationalism and authoritarianism, based on a 1914 novel by Heinrich Mann, brother of novelist Thomas. In the 1890s, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, a toady named Diederich (Werner Peters) gets ahead by grovelling. When he rises to a position of power, he relishes the abusive possibilities. In notes accompanying this First Run Features DVD, Massachusetts academic Andrew Donson says East Germany took the satire more or less in stride, but West German censors balked at suggestions of a through-line from Prussian authoritarianism to Nazism, a line that implicated the German middle classes in the rise of the Third Reich. This was considered a bad PR move.

While Bill Maher took issue with unquestioning faith in God and the supernatural in his film Religulous, television has for years delighted in imagining life after death. Touched by an Angel was the ultimate in religious comfort food, but the series Dead Like Me, with Ellen Muth as a newly dead young woman who finds she is expected to work as a grim reaper, gave the idea a witty edge. The series was cancelled after two years, but the cast - with the unfortunate exception of no-show Mandy Patinkin, who played Muth's boss, Rube - has reunited for a direct-to-video movie called Dead Like Me: Life After Death. The new boss, played by Henry Ian Cusick, is less picky about following rules than Rube was, so you just know Muth's character will again try to get in touch with her earthly family. In a shared commentary, Muth accuses director Stephen Herek of " Matlock shooting" because he worked so quickly, as one does on a by-the-numbers TV show like Matlock. Herek affects a wounded tone. "I thought I was being very French, very arty."

But the master of churning out movies long after the cancellation of a series must be Matt ( The Simpsons) Groening, who has just released the fourth direct-to-video film based on the animated Futurama. Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder is more of the enjoyable same - snappy patter, a robot without a conscience, on-time space deliveries, this time with an ecological theme - and comes with Groening's typically generous bonus features. One, from "DVD Bonus Features That No One Bothers to Watch Productions," is a mock making-of segment, complete with the pressing of DVDs on a waffle iron. Groening says this is "hopefully not the last" film in the series.

Extra! Extra! The French Connection (1971) was a gritty police thriller based on a true heroin-smuggling case. Gene Hackman played the cop obsessed with catching the French masterminds. Both he and the film took home Oscars. Among the terrific extras on the two-disc Blu-ray version is a look at the chase in which Hackman drives at a murderous speed under an elevated subway track to catch a bad guy aboard the train. It's a heart-in-mouth sequence, filmed so recklessly (few knew the car was coming) that director William Friedkin says he wouldn't do it again. "It was irresponsible." Also on Blu-ray: a single-disc The French Connection II (1975).

Extra! Extra! Extra!

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Despite the warm title, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008), is a true-crime documentary. In 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered in Pennsylvania. His former girlfriend, the chief suspect in the case, left the United States and settled in St. John's, where she gave birth to Zachary Bagby. Kurt Kuenne, Bagby's friend, started off making a film of the case to tell Zachary something about his father, but reality got in the way: Zachary's death. The DVD comes with home-movie footage of Bagby and Zachary, and an appeal to viewers to "honour Andrew and Zachary" by urging Parliament to change the rules on granting bail.

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