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Rat Fink rules!

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Two great, but very different, documentaries and some classic television are in this week's DVD picks.

SCTV: Best of the Early Years

Before the great comedy show "SCTV" was a 90-minute weekly network show, it was a half-hour syndicated offering. This new three DVD set collects 15 of the very best episodes of the shows first broadcast between 1978 and 1980.

"SCTV" poked fun at television in a way that has seldom been matched. Despite many topical references, these shows are still very timely and funny today.

In these programs, the "SCTV" cast members developed their characters such as SCTV station owner Guy Caballero who uses a wheelchair to gain respect; station manager Edith Prickley; incompetent newsman Earl Camembert; horror show host Count Floyd; and ber Canadians Doug and Bob McKenzie.

There's some very funny stuff here including the wonderful episode in which Woody Allen (played by Rick Moranis) tries to make a movie with his idol Bob Hope (impersonated perfectly by Dave Thomas). There's also another dead-on Moranis impersonation when he becomes Dick Cavett interviewing schlock comic and "SCTV" regular Bobby Bittman played with a crass appeal by Eugene Levy.

In some of the shows, John Candy and Catherine O' Hara are missing and were replaced with Robin Duke and Tony Rosato. These shows are a little weaker than those with Candy and O'Hara, but generally they are still more entertaining than much of what passes for comedy on network television today.

There's a great extra in the collection that is a vintage Canadian news story on the popularity of the McKenzies.

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Off to War: from Rural Arkansas to Iraq

If you missed this 10-part documentary series when it was first broadcast last year on the Discovery Times Channel, you now have the opportunity to catch it on DVD. The entire series plus extras will be available Oct. 17.

Two brothers, Brent and Craig Renaud, embedded themselves with the Arkansas National Guard between 2003 and 2005. They followed 57 men from one small town in Arkansas as they prepared to go to Iraq, their experiences in the war zone and their lives after their tour of duty.

The filmmakers clearly were not only interested in how the war affected the Guardsmen, but how it affected their families. An over-riding concern is how many of the Guardsmen would be able to make money once they return, as their jobs might not be waiting for them.

This is very compelling viewing. It poses many of the questions people have about the purpose and legitimacy of the war from the perspective of these citizen soldiers.

It's not easy viewing, either. The unit sustains casualties and fatalities and we see how these men react. We see how the families must cope with a wounded family member and how the nightly news reports fill them with dread.

It's also troubling to see soldiers fighting a war who don't understand what the war is all about or why they are fighting it.

This is television at its finest. You have to watch this series.

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Tales of the Rat Fink

Documentary director Ron Mann has fashioned a thoroughly original look at an American original: Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

"Big Daddy" who?

If you don't remember the custom cars and crazy cartoon characters by Ed Roth in the 1960s, then you should know this is a man who changed American popular culture in some very big ways.

Roth was an artist, a mechanic, an iconoclast and a savvy businessman. A man who barely made it through high school, Roth was part of the hot rod culture of the 1950s. Out of that time, when he was building hot rods and designing custom paint jobs, Roth developed the first tee-shirt with a design to be worn just by itself. That's right, Roth is the guy who invented the style of tee-shirts that have become part of the modern American lifestyle.

He also was the first car designer to use fiberglass as the material to push custom cars from hot rods made from Detroit cars to works of moving art.

His character of Rat Fink a reaction to Mickey Mouse helped people embrace weirdness as a positive rather than negative social norm. Roth was a classic outsider who changed the mainstream of American culture. He helped make it possible for other outsiders to do the same thing.

Mann tells Roth's story in an unconventional but entertaining way. He includes few film clips the standard documentary element and instead uses animated photos of Roth that accompany a narration track by John Goodman who plays Roth. Goodman is a Roth fanatic who met the man and does a great job with the vocal performance.

Mann also has cars "tell" Roth's story and employs the talents of people such as ZZ Top member Billy Gibbons, artist Robert Williams, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Jay Leno and Ann-Margaret to play the succession of custom automobiles.

Funny, nostalgic and educational, "Tales of the Rat Fink" is a great salute to a one of a kind man.

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